The Wondrous Woo tells the story of Miramar Woo who is the quintessential Chinese girl: nice, quiet, and reserved. The eldest of the three Woo children, Miramar is ever the obedient sister and daughter ... on the outside. On the inside, she’s a kick-ass kung fu heroine with rock star flash, sassy attitude, and an insatiable appetite for adventure. Just as Miramar is about to venture forth on the real adventure of leaving home for university, her beloved father is killed in an accident.
The Wondrous Woo
Herizons Magazine, Fall 2014: Vol. 28, No. 2
reviewed by Niranjana Iyer
The familiar ethnic Bildungsroman takes on a satisfying twist in Carrianne Leung’s debut novel, The Wondrous Woo. When the Woo family moves from Hong Kong to Scarborough in the 1970s, the father, Ba, embraces all things Canada (barbecues! skating! weather-centric discussions!) with gusto. Ma never quite warms to “Ka-La-Dai,” and the children, Miramar, Sophia and Darwin, make their way as best they can.
Forward a decade, and Miramar is an 18-year-old with a passion for re-imagining Hong Kong kung fu films, only with kick-ass heroines instead of heroes. But then Ba dies in an accident, and the family unravels as Ma retreats to her bedroom permanently. Miramar, the oldest child, takes charge in true kung fu fashion, but the family is dangerously low on money. Then one night, Ba’s spirit visits Darwin and promises to take care of the family. Shazam! Overnight, Darwin becomes a musical virtuoso, and Sophia turns into a math genius. When the media discovers the gifted children, money and career offers pour in, and Ma emerges to handle the children’s affairs.
Miramar waits, but when no further miracles emerge, she attends university. The younger siblings learn to cope with their extraordinary gifts, and Miramar faces the challenge of entering adulthood feeling abandoned and lonely. All the ingredients for self-destruction are in place. How Miramar negotiates the complexities of social and familial demands to carve her own identity forms the bulk of the story.
Leung skilfully shows the alienation Miramar experiences within her own family as well as in society as an immigrant of colour. Miramar confesses that she speaks Cantonese like a child, her “tongue frozen upon immigration.” Leung’s use of magic realism to heighten gender, racial and class tensions in the narrative is masterly—the device adds rich texture without ever feeling gimmicky, and care is taken to ground the fantastical aspects in satisfying detail.
In an age when we’re pushed to dream big and to want more, Leung reminds us that the small, quiet life can be a thing of satisfaction.
A wondrous, touching, memorable and beautiful read - October 4, 2014
"I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, it's beautiful, heart-wrenching, magical and yet, wholly real."
- Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Witchdoctor's Bones
Toronto Books Awards: The Wondrous Woo - Word on the Street - September 12, 2014
reviewed by Kim MacMullen
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.
A Review of Carrianne Leung’s The Wondrous Woo - April 21, 2014
Asian American Literature Fans
reviewed by Stephen Hong Sohn
I’m going north of the border and reviewing Carrianne Leung’s debut novel The Wondrous Woo, which is told from the perspective of Miramar Woo, the oldest of three children (she has one younger sister, Sophia, and then a younger brother, Darwin), who resides in Scarborough, Canada with her family (her father is the one who convinces his family to immigrate). The novel immediately takes a dark turn when Miramar’s father is hit by a car and succumbs to his injuries. Soon after this moment, Miramar’s brother develops an amazing and prodigious talent in music, while Sophia becomes an incredibly brilliant mathematician. Both are whisked away to various areas: Darwin heads out on a European tour, accompanied by the Woo matriarch, while Sophia heads off to McGill University under the tutelage of a professor. Darwin is a big hit and Sophia is a revelation; both are utter spectacles, and the Woo family becomes known for the two children with The Gifts. Of course, Miramar does not seem to have any talent and this lack of a gift weighs upon her heavily. She attends Carleton College, where she engages in the requisite search for her identity. Much of her time there is spent having sex with her boyfriend Jerry, a cad of a man with obviously rakish intentions. We are not surprised when that relationship fails, but it becomes clear that this romance was sustaining any sense of stability in her life. At that point, she finds herself listing in one job position to the next, eventually deciding to make a rather radical break and moving away from her family without telling them where she is. Indeed, she begins to perceive her family is holding her back: her mother’s budding romantic relationship with another man certainly causes strain upon everyone, while Sophia and Darwin continue to garner accolades for their talents. While on her self-imposed exile, she develops a relationship with a strange Chinese Canadian man by the name of Mouse, who seems to have no real or discernible past. He does have an interest in Kung Fu movies (see the cover of this book for the obvious connection) and Miramar and Mouse begin collaborating on writing film and movie scripts. But Miramar eventually realizes she has avoided the importance of her family in her life and must make a decision about how she will continue to relate to or NOT to relate to her mother and her siblings.
Leung’s novel is particularly engaging because she masters a kind of tragicomic tonality that leads to a reading experience generously peppered with narrative poignancy and quirky humor. The slightly offbeat storyline occasionally verges on the surreal, which gives the plot the occasional jolt: besides the Gifts of her siblings, her mother also must confront the occasional psychotic break, which alludes to a larger theme of madness that runs through the novel. Coming out of Inanna publications, this novel is clearly originating a publishing industry that fosters experimentation and innovation, reminiscent of the work of other Asian Canadian writers such as the recently reviewed Corinna Chong (recall the mother who studies crop circles). Certainly, a novel that takes its own spin on the model minority narrative and immigrant development.
"How The Wondrous Woo Breaks Barriers: A literature review" - March 14, 2014
Schema Magazine - for the interculturally minded
reviewed by Alex Florian
"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!"
Alex is an intern with Schema and an undergrad at UBC, majoring in sociology, English literature, and frozen yogurt.
"Carrianne K.Y. Leung’s, The Wondrous Woo" - March 12, 2014
Buried in Print
"It’s possible that the readers who will warm most fervently to The Wondrous Woo are those readers who feel a connection with a passage like this:
“The first episode had come after an incident at the Woolco cafeteria when I was ten. It was $1.44 day and we had been on a back-to-school shopping mission.”
(I had completely forgotten $1.44 days, but whoa, it returned in a burst. Along with that quintessential Woolco-smell.)
Or readers who can recite, along with Miramar Woo, the final lines of the final episode of “The Wonder Years”:
“I remember a place, a town a house like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of yards, on a street like a lot of streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back … with wonder.”
(I discovered the series in syndication and watched it as loyally as I’d watched “Star Trek”, “The Love Boat”, and “Little House on the Prairie”: “The Wonder Years” was better. Obviously.)
But it’s also possible that readers will simply respond to the journey that Miramar takes in the pages of this novel, to the experiences which demand that she discover and unleash her inner super-hero.
A tragic event in her young life forces young Miramar to find a source of resilience.
Those around her seem to have coping mechanisms dropped in their laps, while she feels her loss and pain all the more keenly in her loneliness. And while those to whom she looks for comfort and reassurance are preoccupied, she must look elsewhere for women who exhibit the strength and courage she requires.
She watches and rewatches films found only in Chinatown: those with Cheng Pei-Pei, one of the first major female king fu stars, her legendary “Golden Swallow”, also known as “The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick”, as well as Angela Mao Ying, Lily Li, Karina Wei-Yin Hung, and Michelle Yeoh.
(The landscape of Toronto does figure prominently; Miramar works at a community centre in the East End — I imagine it being on Queen East near Carlaw, and she travels the TTC — sometimes from Bloor all the way to Kennedy and then hopping on a bus, and she eventually lives and shops in the inimitable Kensington Market.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also finds great comfort and support in books and reading. (In that sense, she reminded me of Katherine in Suzanne Sutherland’s When We Were Good, another terrific tale in feminist ink.)
“I had always been my most comfortable between the stacks,” she says. (Oh, yes!)
This does not allow Miramar to fully escape the inner eye, the sense of inhabiting the margins.
“I could try all I wanted to achieve the long silhouette of the slender girls, but I would always look more like one of the seven dwarves. I did not have much of a waist, my hips flared way out and my bum ended near my mid-thigh in the back. Nida called me womanly. I hated that. I wished I had a body like Debbie Harry in Blondie: bone-skinny, all edges and points, like she hadn’t eaten in a year.” (Oh, yes….)
She is still constantly aware of feeling awkward, and the relationships she establishes tentatively are not necessarily as supportive as she hopes they will be.
“For a while, I was determined to make him love the feeling of cracking the spine of a book as much as I did.”
But despite the sorrowful nature of some events and the softer relational disappointments which follow, gradually Miramar rediscovers her own strength.
There are no grand illuminations, but a series of quiet acknowledgements and realizations, as the years pass, and a new set of challenges emerges (rooted in the past, completely credible but still tragedy upon tragedy).
“It was serious what [she] had said, and I did not have the energy to think about it. It meant that during our whole lives together, she had been trying to be happy, but failing, and lying to us all.” (The ‘she’ avoids a spoiler.)
A lifetime of lies: that’s quite a burden to uncover and bear, if only as a witness.
At such points, readers are grateful for Carrianne Leung’s uncluttered prose.
In the hands of another storyteller, such observations could easily be melodramatic and lose their intensity.
But Miramar too is a trained observer.
“Besides, Sociology intrigued me. People, clustered together, needing each other, hating each other, defining themselves in and out of groups – at last, I learned that there were many ways of making sense of this mess we called humankind.”
She hasn’t only been watching the screen and studying the text. She has been observing in quite another way.
The style, too, suits the tales which preface chapters, like the one in the boxed excerpt to the right.
Concise and cleanly styled, these are the kinds of stories which bring Miramar back to herself.
These tales certainly added to my appreciation of Miramar’s journey (they reminded me of anthologies like Katrin Hyman Tchana’s Changing Woman and Her Sisters and The Serpent Slayer).
And they do set this coming-of-age story apart with a certain flare.
But ultimately the story is rooted in Miramar, and the greater the connection readers feel with her, the stronger their response to the novel will be.
The Wondrous Woo is the kind of tale that can bring out the super-hero in readers too.
Was this debut novel on your reader’s radar? Or, are you scribbling down the title and author’s name now?
"The Wondrous Woo and a Wondrous Author: Carrianne Leung coming to Vancouver"
Schema Magazine -for the interculturally minded - March 7, 2014
pre-review by Alex Florian
"Here’s the goods on Carrianne Leung, author of The Wondrous Woo. And in no significant order.
She has a PhD in Sociology and Equity Studies from OISE/The University of Toronto. She currently lives in Toronto where she writes fiction, is a co-editor of Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada, works as an educator at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and is a mother. To top it all off, she is also the co-owner of Multiple Organics, an organic grocery store. As a writer, I don’t fully comprehend where she made had the time to write The Wondrous Woo, but I’m glad she did. It looks fantastic.
It is a young adult novel that tells the story of Miramar Woo, who has moved to Canada with her family and seems like the archetypal Chinese teen: reserved and nice, the obedient sister and daughter. She has a desire for adventure and as she is on the brink of independence and heading off to university, her beloved father (who from what I’ve read sounds like a fantastic character) is killed in an accident. The story spans her transition from suburban Toronto to university in Ottawa, which she makes alone, as her siblings cruise into new found fame that has sailed by her, and as her mother battles with paranoia. As she explores new sides of herself, Miramar discovers the meaning of courage, belonging and family.
The first thing I learned in creative writing 101 is that you won’t reach your reader if your characters aren’t real and alive. In only the first chapter that I was able to read online, I’ve already fallen in love with the character of Miramar’s father. Fiction may not be the only thing listed in Leung’s bio, but I can tell that it’s a realm in which she definitely belongs. This novel takes on dynamic identity issues and delves into the intercultural experience that is so common in today’s globalized society.
It is available online and in stores, and a preview first chapter is also available online. I’m waiting for my copy to arrive (because who doesn’t shop online these days), and will report back with a full review.
Leung is coming to Vancouver on her book tour (you can add celebrity status to the long introductory list) in just a few days! She’ll be at the following Vancouver Public Library branches:
I can’t wait to meet her and to hear about the wondrous journey that brought this addition to the ever expanding genre of Chinese-Canadian literature.
About Alex Florian: Alex is an intern with Schema and an undergrad at UBC, majoring in sociology, English literature, and frozen yogurt.
“What do you do when your father dies and leaves your siblings with super powers, but overlooks you? Leung deftly blends magic, Kung Fu and heartbreak in this endearing and unusual coming of age tale. I cringed and giggled and cried as I followed Miramar Woo in her struggle to grow up in the ‘burbs, deal with her family and find her own extraordinary gifts.”
- Farzana Doctor, author of Stealing Nasreen and Six Metres of Pavement