Review Blog

Nov 12 2019

The surprising power of a good dumpling by Wai Chim

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Allen and Unwin, 2019. ISBN: 9781760631581. 400p; p/b.
Anna Chiu tries to support her younger siblings as her parents fail the family. For a story as personal as this, the writing of the characters is absolutely crucial, and Chim gets it spot on. It's immediately clear what kind of person each character is, largely without relying on shallow archetypes. The plot is one of personal dramas, about how characters react in different situations in their lives. The pacing is somewhat uneven, with quite an extended period of setting things up before the major incident that changes the characters' lives, followed by the consequences feeling rather rushed and abridged.
The novel has a bit of a complicated relationship with its themes. Initially, Anna is dealing with her erratic, neglectful and abusive mother, and her passive acceptance and normalisation of that puts her younger siblings and her own mental health at risk. The novel seems to be building up to the point that she can't accept it and needs to change the situation, when suddenly her mother has a psychotic episode and the focus shifts entirely on the mother's mental health. Now the message has suddenly changed to one of duty, saying that, yes, Anna does need to look after her poor mother, and any condemnation of the abuse is forgotten. This mixed messaging is extremely strange and undermines both points presented.
The setting is well established in modern day Sydney, with characters communicating by online messaging apps regularly. The novel is full of Romanised Cantonese, which as an English-speaking reader, increases the sense of being an outsider, causing sympathy with Anna as she feels further alienated from her family. Teacher's tips and author's discussion notes are available from the publisher's website.
Vincent Hermann

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