All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Surprising Power Of A Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

on September 5, 2019

The Surprising Power Of A Good Dumpling
Wai Chim
Allen & Unwin
2019, 392p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family, and the surprising power of a good dumpling.

I had seen this book around a little bit on social media and I thought it sounded really cute so I picked myself up a copy after reading a few good reviews. The cover is really eye catching and lets face it – who doesn’t love a good dumpling?

But this book is so much more than just that cute cover and catchy title. It’s actually a really amazing exploration of mental illness and how it impacts on a family. Anna is about 16, she’s the oldest of three children. Her father works long hours at the family restaurant on the Central Coast in Gosford. As the family now live in Sydney, it’s quite a trek there and back each day and sometimes he doesn’t even bother to return, staying on a pullout bed in his office. Anna’s younger sister is a high achieving scholar at a selective school and their brother Michael is still very young, in early primary school and still requiring quite a bit of care. This often falls to Anna and her sister, because Anna’s mother has times where she cannot even get out of bed.

This is a really complex story which is incredibly well explored. Anna has frustration that she must keep hidden inside and so she puts on a bright face and lies for younger brother Michael, saying their mother is a bit tired and she will be well soon. The family are Chinese-Australian and so there are cultural aspects at play too. Anna’s father is frequently absent and unwilling to discuss the issue of Anna’s mother, perhaps because it seems that it just isn’t talked about. He seems confused and helpless at times, removing himself to the restaurant and leaving the two girls to basically struggle on as best they can, shielding Michael and trying to ensure he gets what he needs both at school and at home. Anna seems reluctant to push the issue, not really knowing how to make her father listen that this isn’t just her mother being tired, that they need some help. And when her mother does finally get out of bed, it’s not because she’s ‘better’. Things end up very bad indeed.

Anna also has struggles regarding school – she is not the stereotypical high achieving student of Asian background that it seems people expect her to be, excelling in maths and science. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and various meetings with her high school careers counsellor leave her frustrated and feeling misunderstood and typecast. There’s pressure to be more, do more, be “worthwhile” but Anna gets a lot of pleasure from helping her father in the restaurant. It’s something she used to do on a regular basis when the family lived close by to it, but now that they live in Sydney, it’s difficult for Anna to be able to undertake that travel as well as do school. She negotiates helping in the school holidays which is how she meets Rory, the new delivery driver for the restaurant. She loves being in that environment, rolling spring rolls, manning the fryers, knowing their quirks. She comes up with really good ideas when her dad is concerned that the business might be decreasing in profit and it’s something that she seems very passionate about. I love the scene where she takes Rory to her favourite dumpling place near her home and explains how to eat what she orders for them. It seemed like such a wonderful experience and was so vividly described. I’m pretty well aware that most of what I eat is “western Chinese” or western influenced Thai or whatever, rather than what would be the norm for families of those cultures and backgrounds so the talk around what the restaurant makes vs what they actually eat as a family is interesting. And later on in the book, Anna sees an opportunity for them to make a more authentic version of their cuisine as well, rather than just falling back on the popular lemon chicken, spring rolls, etc.

The food talk is wonderful, the romance is adorable but also with a really strong message too. Rory has had his own mental health issues and I think his openness with Anna helps her find some clarity in her mother’s situation as well, that this is not a quick fix (or possibly even a fix) sort of thing. It will be ongoing, there will be good days and bad days and it will be a trial and error thing to deal with. Some things will work, others will not. Anna will probably always feel that pressure and strain to keep things together in a way, being the eldest but I feel that at least her father does step up for her, understands the burden of his absence and helps to ease that so that Anna might rely on him a little more, know he’s going to be closer and around when needed. The way in which the book deals with Anna’s mother’s illness through Anna’s eyes gives a very strong picture of the effect it has on the rest of the family but also what it does to their mother as well, the way in which it makes her feel and the forms that it takes.

This was a really incredible book, very emotional and I felt it portrayed the circumstances beautifully – especially the difficulties.


Book #134 of 2019

This is book #58 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019



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