Our series of Toronto Book Awards reviews continues. Kim MacMullen will be reading and reviewing each of the finalists for this year’s Toronto Book Awards, which will be awarded on October 16, 2014.
Today Kim reviews The Wondrous Woo by Carrianne K. Y. Leung (Inanna Publications). Carianne will be reading at the The Word On The Street on September 21st, at 1:00 PM and again at 5:30 PM at the Toronto Book Awards Tent.
The Wondrous Woo tells the story of Miramar Woo, whose father moves their family to Scarborough from Hong Kong in the 1980s. While his “gung-ho” enthusiasm for Canada is not entirely matched by his wife and three kids, the Woo family generally enjoy their new suburban life, albeit with some struggles that are hidden from the children. Quiet and reserved outside of her home, Miramar especially enjoys her Saturday morning Kung Fu movie marathons with her father, cheering on the heroes and heroines who star in stories of bravery and justice. When Miramar’s father dies unexpectedly, the family is thrown into turmoil; Miramar must step into the lead role of the family, caring for her mother, brother, and sister in the aftermath of the tragedy. Shortly after their father’s death, Miramar’s siblings each develop incredible aptitudes that the family refers to as The Gifts. Their mother is quickly consumed by caring for and traveling with her two prodigies, which keeps her depression and panic attack-triggered hallucinations at bay. The children believe that The Gifts came from their late father as a means to cope with and distract themselves from their grief, leaving Miramar behind, literally and figuratively, to wonder why her father didn’t grant her a special talent.
Over the course of the next year, Miramar must deal with her grief largely on her own. After a tumultuous period filled with love and soul-crushing heartbreak (both with the same flannel-clad boy from North Bay) along with new interests and failed classes, she returns home. Her mother eventually succumbs again to her hallucinations, leaving Miramar to once more lead the family through the tough times—after she strikes out on her own in Toronto for a while, first. While living in the city, Miramar meets a boy named Mouse who shows her that, after a lifetime of keeping her true self inside, being yourself leads to the best, most honest, and most rewarding relationships, a message that Leung is able to convey with the same mix of dry humour and sincerity that exists in the rest of the book while successfully avoiding taking on the tone of a treacle-sweet after-school special.
Despite (or perhaps partly because of) its heavy subject matter, The Wondrous Woo is a genuinely funny book. Leung’s writing is sharp and moves quickly, keeping up with Miramar’s lightning-quick internal monologue of witty, biting, often self-deprecating observations. The book is a fantastic mix of heartfelt and hilarious in a way that feels deeply satisfying, and Miramar’s development arc feels measured and realistic. She doesn’t instantly morph into one of the no-nonsense, butt-kicking heroines from her favourite Kung Fu movies in one theatrical burst; through her grief, struggles, joys and small triumphs, she undergoes a slow-burning transformation over the course of the book’s four years that finally culminates in a dramatic climax that shows her the value of being herself on purpose. Which, whether it comes with the aid of magical Gifts or not, is what growing up is all about.
Kim MacMullen is a copywriter from Barrie, ON. She has a degree in English Literature from Laurentian University, and, after spending two years in Toronto, she now lives in Barrie with her husband and their substantial collections of books, sports memorabilia, and video games.
Carrianne K. Y. Leung holds a Ph.D in which field of study? Check out our festival program, and send the answer to firstname.lastname@example.org to be entered in a draw to win a prize pack of all the shortlisted Toronto Book Awards books, signed by the authors!
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews next week, and more chances to enter!
Contest closes September 19, 2014.