The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim
This beautifully written own voices young adult novel is narrated by Anna Chui, who is in Year 11 at school. Anna’s teachers are telling her to put more effort and thought into her studies and what she wants to do after school, but they don’t know that at home, Anna is left to assume responsibility for her two younger siblings, while her father works long hours at the family restaurant, and Ma stays in bed for long periods of time. Anna is looking for signs in the shadows and the sky to help guide her, to determine whether or not she can allow herself to feel hopeful for Ma’s recovery.
When Anna starts helping her father out at the restaurant during school holidays, her life begins to change in unexpected ways. Not only does she find solace and a sense of belonging at the restaurant, but she also meets Rory, the new delivery boy. Anna and Rory embark on a tentatively sweet romance, and Anna becomes immersed in her work at the restaurant, where the staff feel like family.
However, even as things seem to outwardly fall into place, Ma’s mental health deteriorates in a frightening way, and it soon becomes clear that Rory is also battling his own inner demons. Looking for signs of hope in the shadows and the sky are no longer enough and Anna is going to need to summon her inner strength – and learn to rely on others as a source of strength too.
This novel deals with some difficult and emotional issues, but never in a fashion which feels weighty – issues of mental health, racism, and fractured family dynamics are handled with assurance and sensitivity. Young adult readers are shown that adults can be flawed, and that love and resentment can sit side by side. Despite her outbursts of rage, Ma’s fierce love for her family is always there, trembling below the surface of her outbursts and silences.
I love how the sharing of food connects the characters in this story, providing a sense of connection, healing and nourishment. After one of her outbursts, Ma cooks steam buns for her children the next morning, offering them like an apology. We are reminded how the sharing of a meal can connect us and provide a sense of belonging and unity – including across cultures. For Anna and her family, the cooking and sharing of food maintains connection to family and memories and place.
This insightful, heartbreaking and sweetly tender novel highlights the reality that there are no easy answers or solutions when it comes to mental health. But, ultimately, this is a novel full of heart and hope, and – somehow - love continues to flicker through brightest of all.
Published by Allen & Unwin.
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