Book review: The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

(image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

As concepts go, the idea of “normal” is one that is very close to most people’s hearts.

It may be near meaningless, rubbery in definition and oblique as things get, but it is beloved, largely because intangibility has never been an issue when it comes to Homo Sapiens deciding if something is a great idea or not, and if it provides some comfort into the bargain, screw a clearly-spelled out definition.

And yet for all its failings, it’s that idea of comfort that proves so alluring to so many people; take Anna Chiu, a year 11 student in Sydney’s Inner West suburb of Ashfield, who in Wai Chim’s touchingly-grounded The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, simply wants to be a normal teen, like the popular girls at school Connie and Wei whose lives seem to effortless and fun in comparison to hers.

In Anna’s view of normal, teenagers get to hang out with their boyfriends, go to parties, stay out late and sleep in, burdened by nothing more than having to get their latest assignment in on time. (Or re-done on time, something Anna has to do when her Hamlet essay is handed back as a “please, try again”, something the average student who lacks her younger sister Lily’s driven will to succeed, demonstrably dreads.)

Regardless of how true Anna’s idealised view of teenagerdom might be – as it turns out, somewhat close but are tad too lack in some basic grounded realities of life – fulfilling seems like a pipe dream as the senior high schooler has to spend much of her time playing the role of surrogate parent to 13-year-old Lily and 5-year-old Michael.

“When Ma stays in bed, our mornings are a game of fortune-telling where I’m forever looking for signs. The search begins when I try to coax her up with a cup of herbal tea. I shuffle down the hallway, looking for a shadow that looks like a smiley face, waiting for a shock from the doorknob, or trying to miss the creaking board on the floor. These signs tell me something about what to expect behind Ma’s closed door.” (P. 3)

The reason for this is her Ma’s up-and-down mood swings and her tendency to climb into bed and not emerge for weeks, or at this beautifully-engaging story begins, months at a time.

There are clearly some major mental issues at work here but with Anna’s father in denial about the true nature of his wife’s condition – his restaurant sits in Gosford, 90 minutes from home, and he is often not home, hiding himself in his often-demanding work – and Anna and her siblings too busy over-compensating for their mother’s absence from their daily routines, no one has time to sit down and deal with an issue that severely plays with whatever idea of normal Anna has about her life.

For a good part of the book, in fact, Anna, who is both devoted to her siblings’ but quietly, and guiltily, resentful of the way they stop her being a normal teen – again, for Anna this is a nebulous term but it mostly means not being a surrogate parent – believes her mother’s condition is an aberration of normal and that if her Ma can just snap back to normal, every thing will be all right.

But as is so often the case in life, wishing away unpalatable realities with intangible ideas of what might take their place never really work since those realities rarely, if ever, vanish of their own accord, requiring effort to shift them on the dial if that’s even possible, and rubbery ideas of what could take their place prove stubbornly resistant to fulfillment.

Wai Chim (image courtesy official author site)

It’s only when Anna comes to understand, in ways that are slowly and thoughtfully brought to bear by Wai Chim who takes Anna on a believably meaningful journey throughout The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, that she is living her own version of normal, good and bad, that she, and the rest of the family finally come to grips with the true nature and extent of their lives.

It’s a harrowing journey as you might expect with Anna’s Ma seesawing up and down – more down than up, confounding her daughter’s ideas of quick and simple fixes to life’s more trenchant problems – from healthy mother who drops off and picks up her from school and tells her eldest daughter how proud she is of her to a woman in the grip of psychotic delusion who tosses out toasters and sees spies in van outside their apartment when there is no one there.

But thanks to Chim’s insightfully light and measure style, it is not a journey without some emerging joys.

Take Rory, for instance, the young guy who starts out as the delivery driver, and occasional front of house helper, at the family’s restaurant where Anna often helps out, who soon becomes so much more to a teen desperately searching for some semblance of normalcy.

He has his own share of problems of course, many with more than a passing relevancy to Anna’s own situation, but he gives Anna a taste of what her version of normal might be like, while also serving to underscore that normal is a far more complicated concept that Anna could ever have dreamed of.

“My heart sinks.

‘After everything … this wasn’t supposed to happen,’ I whisper. ‘It’s supposed to be okay now. Why can’t it just be normal again?’

Lily cocks her head to the side. ‘Anna, life isn’t some fairytale or movie. We don’t get whisked into the sunset or try on fifteen outfits before the school dance. This is normal,’ she finishes.

Her words echo over and over when I shut the door to ma’s room.

This is normal.” (P. 385-386)

Suffused with humour, sadness, confusion and hope, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling – given the family close cultural and occupational closeness to food, it makes sense that dumplings play a key role in the story – is an deeply empathetic look at the often messy intersection of family and culture, and how mental health can throw a substantial spanner in the existential works.

Therein though lies the great, compelling power of this delightful read.

It dares you not to see mental health issues not as some kind of aberration that must be repelled and ignore but rather an integral part of normal that may not be welcome but which is not going away and must be tackled head-on if any kind of meaningfully stable life is to emerge.

Watching this central truth dawn on Anna as her version of normal ends up integrating itself with the uneven and often fractured reality that is her day-to-day existence, creating a normal that may not be perfect but is at least sustainable (and thanks to Rory, butterflies in the stomach wonderful more than it used to be) is a joy.

While the very Sydney story is set in a beautifully-evoked Chinese-Australian cultural context (a welcome addition to the increasing diversity of Young Adult storytelling), the message is universal – we don’t always get what we wish for with reality cruelling idealistic vision of things more often than not, but once we make peace between what we have and what might it might become, life can change beyond (almost; let’s not get carried away) all recognition, and we might just find that normal is closer to hand that we ever expected.

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