Anna Chiu has her hands full looking after her siblings and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. The new delivery boy Rory is a welcome distraction and even though things aren’t right at home, Anna’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.
This book is so heartfelt, authentic, emotional and topical that I was completely immersed and engaged from start to finish. The story is told through the eyes of sixteen year old Anna Chiu. Anna describes herself as a boring, stereotypical Asian nerd, mediocre at best. She is not a stereotypical high achiever. While the cultural expectation is that she will do well at school and then go to university to study medicine or law, Anna would rather work in her father’s restaurant. It is there that she feels at home.
Like most teens, Anna just wants for things to be normal. She just wants to fit in and do normal teen stuff. But Anna has ‘Mum stuff’ to deal with because Anna’s Ma suffers from mental illness. To begin with her Ma’s condition goes undiagnosed. In fact, while it is very obvious that her Ma is unwell, her father (Baba) deludes himself that his wife’s condition isn’t that serious. And no help is sought because of the stigma and shame associated with mental health issues. To quote Anna, “Things we have to keep to ourselves”. But when the bed-bound depression escalates into full blown paranoia, mania and psychotic episodes, hospital admission and medical intervention are required.
Being the eldest of three children, Anna feels responsible for caring for her younger sister Lily (13) and little brother Michael (5). Her dad is always at work, even choosing to sleep overnight at the restaurant. And her mum spends most of her time in bed. Anna is disappointed by this because mothers aren’t supposed to spend weeks at a time in bed. A normal mother would get out of bed every day and care for her and her siblings. Why can’t her Ma be normal?
Finally being allowed to work in her father’s restaurant brings Anna some much needed joy in her life. It’s also how she meets Rory, her first boyfriend. Rory’s own experience with depression helps Anna to better understand mental illness and gives her some hope. Rory is a great and much needed support for Anna. Working at the Jade Palace and having a boyfriend provides Anna with some much needed normality. It also brings her closer to her Baba as they develop a deeper understanding of each other.
The character development is superb. We get to know Anna so intimately that we can feel the pressure she’s under trying to hold everything together. She’s doing her best to keep the family together, protect her Ma, care for her siblings, do well at school and be a good daughter. Anna’s younger sister Lily is smart, high achieving and disciplined. Her adorable little brother Michael is a talented artist. Her Baba is hard working but absent and her Ma is lonely, broken and fragile. Her boyfriend Rory, who has his own demons, is affable, supportive and understanding. There’s also Anna’s Cantonese speaking Jade Palace family made up of Miss Chen, Old Yuan, Lim and Ah-Jeff (Anna’s favourite). And then there’s school and the awful Miss Kennedy who thinks Anna needs to push herself harder. But of course Miss Kennedy “doesn’t know about everything else”.
The story is essentially Anna’s journey. From desperately wanting “for things to just be normal” to arriving at a place of acceptance of what is. It is imperfect. There isn’t always a happily ever after ending. Anna comes to realise that her Ma’s illness is her ‘normal’. That while her Ma’s condition can be managed there is no cure. Mental illness is a major theme, but other topics include cultural identity, the Chinese-Australian experience, family relationships, Asian culture and values, inter-cultural relationships and first love. And to a lesser extent it touches on bullying, racism and loneliness.
Even though the story is told with so much heart, warmth and empathy, it doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality and darkness of mental illness. It is heart wrenching, moving, confronting and raw. But this book filled my heart with its openness, honesty and love.
About the Author
Wai Chim is a first generation Chinese-American born in New York City. As a child she spoke Cantonese at home and absorbed Western culture through books, TV and school. Wai found it difficult to find books that reflected her cultural experiences. She now lives in Sydney, Australia and has written a number of children’s and young adult titles. In addition to writing, Wai works as a digital producer, copywriter and digital creative for a number of notable Australian brands and agencies, including The Starlight Children’s Foundation.
Author Wai Chim
- Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) – 2020 Shortlist for Book of the Year for Older Children
- The Readings Young Adult Book Prize 2020 – Shortlisted
- The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) – Notable 2020 for Book of the Year: Older Readers
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