Author Wai Chim’s THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING is a fantastic novel that addresses the typical conflicts and issues in Young Adult stories, but it adds layers that address racism, mental health, family dynamics, the immigrant experience, and more. The characters are well-developed and the scenes are believable and relatable. Anna, the main character, is a 16-year-old Chinese-Australian student living in the suburbs of Sydney. She cares for her younger sister and brother because her mother sometimes stays in bed for weeks at a time and her father runs a restaurant and often sleeps there over night instead of commuting home. Her Chinese heritage affects the family dynamics as well as how each family member is perceived by peers and the community as a whole. Anna’s experiences at school, home, and in her personal life are heartbreaking and filled with painful experiences, but her growth and strength are a pleasure to witness.
The novel deftly handles the effects of a parent’s mental health on children. Anna, her sister Lily, and her brother Michael all have different responses to their mother’s struggles. The additional absence of their father, who copes by throwing himself into work and denial, creates situations where Anna must misinform school personnel and shield her younger brother from the truth. Lily’s anger towards their mother contrasts with Anna’s acquiescence and coddling of her mother’s disturbing behavior. Another student is also dealing with a family member All together, it paints a picture of how the adults in Anna’s life fall short and must do better.
When Anna spends time working at her father’s restaurant during school break, she hopes to grow closer to her father and show him she is capable and trustworthy to contribute to the family business. When Rory, a new delivery person, is hired, Anna realizes that perhaps she has a chance to be a “normal” teenager. Their budding romance is natural and told in traditional narrative and via exchanged text messages. Her relationship with Rory helps Anna open up to how stress and obligation affects her. It is also in conversations with Rory that Anna is able to “put words” to feelings she has often had regarding racist micro-aggressions and her confusion about her mother’s mental health.
While the novel deals with heavy subjects, it also dwells on amazing details like restaurant kitchen prep, inner monologues, and loving sibling interactions. The delight with which Anna and Rory consume egg rolls and dumplings is contagious. The attention to peripheral characters and the conflicts they face also demonstrates Wai Chim’s ability to develop multiple personalities and backstories naturally and in detail. Finally, the lack of a definitive “happy ending” solidifies the author’s commitment to relatable and real storylines.
THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING is highly recommended.