The Wondrous Woo took me by surprise; a pleasant surprise. With the alliterative name and cute cartoon cover, I was expecting a young adult novel. The story covers Miramar Woo’s journey through her insecure youth as she discovers who she is, bouncing in and out of university and relationships, making it relatable to young adults. However, Carrianne Leung moves beyond the genre of youth lit by honestly confronting loss, love, sex, culture, mental health and the vulnerabilities that these experiences expose.
Mental health so rarely gets the proportionate attention it deserves in conversation, media and literature. Leung not only depicts representations of paranoia and depression, but also looks at the cultural differences around mental health.
There are many more words for “crazy” in Cantonese than in English. Leung explores some of these words as each character’s nuanced traits are revealed, mirroring the reality of imperfections in us all. Facing the loss of their father and husband, all of Miramar’s family is dealing with grief throughout the novel. Miramar’s mother is also dealing with the stress of immigration, living without her extended family, friends and the cultural characteristics of the life she once knew. One way Leung addresses these issues is through magic realism. The characters are both blessed and haunted by unexplainable powers or paranoia, which mirrors how emotions are sometimes dealt with in real life. Sometimes we feel haunted, like there`s no escape from our own minds. Yet other times, like Miramar’s siblings, we are given gifts, whether they be supernatural or not, that distract us from our grief and help us cope until we can do so on our own. The magical element of Leung’s novel makes it exciting, but is actually very real in its illumination of a genuine process of healing that readers can relate to. We use all kinds of unexpected means to suppress our grief, but sometimes our grief also has a way of shutting us down too.
Miramar’s experience balancing her Chinese and Canadian cultures is what makes this novel a fantastic addition to Canadian literature. The stories fill an expanding literary field that addresses feelings of exclusion along with identity, which is a very real experience for many Canadians. When I met Leung at her book reading, she described Scarborough, her home town and a part of the novel’s setting, as a love-hate relationship. This surprised me, but after reading the novel I noticed that Miramar has fond memories of love and family in the town, but seems more at home in the larger cities where she doesn’t feel her difference is as central. This binary of outsider and belonging is a theme that Leung fearlessly maintains throughout the novel, in both places and relationships.
For her first novel, Leung has packed so much into this book. It breaks the barriers of silence that surround mental health, cultural difference and does it in an entertaining way. The characters and images bring the book to life. I did not relate to Miramar’s experiences in many ways at all, we have largely opposing personalities, but Leung developed her character so well that I was invested and understood exactly what she was going through. While literature has one purpose of entertainment it also opens up avenues of communication between people, and this book made it easy to take Miramar’s experiences in, to understand them in relation to my own.
I would absolutely recommend The Wondrous Woo, and am looking forward to what Leung will produce next!