The Wondrous Woo


a novel by Carrianne Leung

Print: 978-1-77133-068-8 – $22.95
Accessible ePUB: 978-1-77133-069-5 – $9.99
PDF: 978-1-77133-071-8 – $9.99

232 Pages
November 08, 2013

Finalist, Toronto Book Awards (2014)

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.

Miramar watches helplessly as her family unravels in the aftermath of her father’s death.  Her mother is on the brink of a recurring paranoia that involves phantom hands. Her younger siblings suddenly and mysteriously become savants, in possession of uncanny talents nicknamed The Gifts. As her siblings are swept up into the fantastic world of fame and fortune and her mother fights off madness, Miramar is left behind, feeling talentless and abandoned with no idea who she really is or who she wants to become. She gets herself to university on a bus with no family to see her off, no hugs, and no support. She is utterly on her own.

In a story that spans four eventful years, Miramar ventures forth from the suburbs of Toronto to university in Ottawa and back again. Along the way she encounters people and situations light years apart from her sheltered world. She explores new friendships, lust, and a side of herself never seen before. Ultimately, Miramar discovers the meaning of courage, belonging, and family.

The Wondrous Woo articulates a new voice that is at once displaced, but still squarely located in the centre of western and Chinese pop culture and everyday diasporic life. This novel joins other established novels in the increasingly popular genre of Chinese Canadian literature.

“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, it’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, magical and yet, wholly real.”
— Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Witchdoctor’s Bones


Carrianne Leung is a fiction writer, educator and business owner who lives in Toronto with as much aplomb as she can muster. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and Equity Studies from oise/University of Toronto and teaches at Ontario College of Art and Design University. She is also the co-owner of Multiple Organics, an organic grocery store. She is co-editor, with Lynn Caldwell and Darryl Leroux, ofCritical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada (forthcoming, May 2013). She, her partner, their son and two dogs live in the west-end of Toronto.


There are many different ways to say “crazy” in Cantonese: tsaw; hei mong mong; chi seen; deen. Each word described a particular brand of crazy. Tsaw meant “silly.” You could say it as a term of affection, as a tease, or as something derogatory or dismissive of someone’s inappropriate behaviour. Hei mong mong was suited to someone a little foggy, because he was lost in his own world. Chi seen was the English equivalent of “crazy,” which you shouted when something was outrageous. Then there was deen. Well, deen meant “certifiable.” Locked up crazy. Ma crazy.

That was a lot of words, plenty nuanced, but faced with all the various forms of recent craziness in my life, I could see there was a need for more words. What I wanted most was one word that would question who the crazy really were—the ones with the off-beat behaviour, or the rest of us for thinking so.


Whether Mouse was deen or tsaw, he was nice and I, as a new and more reckless Miramar, was in for the adventure of it. I went to sit on his bed. It was perfectly made with a white duvet that was embroidered with pink flowers. It was so delicate and clean, I did not want to muss it up so I just perched on the edge.

Mouse bent down to a small tv with a VHS player beside it. When the film began, he ran over to the bed and jumped on it beside me, bouncing lightly on the mattress like a child. In the movie, Jet Li, a slave to an evil emperor, witnessed the murder of his father. He ran away and was nurtured back to health by a group of monks at the Shaolin Monastery. There he learned integrity, brotherhood, and the noble truths of Buddha. He also learned how to fight because the monks were trained in the secrets of the Shaolin martial arts.

Halfway into the film, I fell hard in love with Jet Li. There was also a fierce shepherdess, the daughter of one of the kung fu masters, who gave Jet Li a walloping for killing and roasting her dog for dinner. There was some hint of a romance brewing, but Jet Li decided to embrace her as his sister since he was now a monk.

Mouse’s bouncing got more intense during the fight scenes. In the final scene, when the evil warlord waged a battle on the sacred ground of the Shaolin temple, Mouse hopped off the bed and landed in panther pose, Bruce Lee style, his face in a deadly scowl. “EEeeeYoooow. MMMMmmmkicha!” he growled and punched the air.

I had never seen anyone else do air kung fu before. Mouse was good, too. I leapt into the mountain stance position, holding my hands at guard. Mouse gave me a nod and we entered into a fight sequence, vanquishing a hundred enemies, just as Jet Li was getting started.

Drums, from the TV sounded a war song with strong rhythmic beats, which inspired us to accelerate our fight. We kicked at the evil troops, throwing our fists in the air and thrusting the bad guys to death with our imaginary swords. Mouse was an incredible gymnast; he did flips backwards and forwards, always landing in the cat stance before repeating his sequences. I practiced the tiger claw, shattering the clavicle of my imaginary foe. The floor shook. At some point, I worried one of his roommates might get upset, but I did not hear any pounding apart from us, so I forgot about it. Once all of Jet Li’s enemies finally lay moaning on the ground, we turned and faced each other, gave a kung fu bow and fell laughing to the floor.

When Mouse caught his breath, he said, “Hey! I knew a man from my home village that had the power to stop the earth from moving!” I arched my brow. Home village? Was he a FOB—someone “fresh off the boat?” He did not have any traces of a Chinese accent. I had assumed he was Canadian-born, or, like me, was part of the 1.5 generation.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he continued excitedly, flailing his arms. “He could grind the axis of the earth to a halt, and the world would freeze while he rescued villagers from unforeseen misfortune!” He stared at me, waiting for my response, which I wasn’t giving him because I was working hard to imagine what he was saying. “Isn’t that insane? The world would stand still while you went fast-forward in it!”

Whether Mouse was really deen became irrelevant at this point; he was hilarious and I ran with it.

“Whoa,” I said. “I can think of a lot of situations when that skill could come in handy.” I remembered seeing extraordinary things during the Sunday matinees. I knew that one trained touch could either save a life or end it, and that simple tap could paralyze the entire body. I also learned from Ba that the masters used to travel by way of stepping on the tops of bamboo trees, so light were their feet. But putting the world on freeze-frame? That was a new one.

“I want to learn to do that,” he said.

“How do you learn something like that?” I asked.

“Meditation. Start inward and then throw the control outward,”he replied.

“I don’t get it.”

“Well, you have to master yourself. You have to be, within yourself, absolutely calm and peaceful. Then, you’ll be able to make the world outside of you just as still,” he explained.

“Right.” It made sense.

“So, I’ve been working on it. I meditate every day. Try to empty everything out. Slow my heart rate, breathing, everything. It’s almost like you’re dead, but not.”

I thought about the World Religion class I hadn’t finished. We had been learning about Buddha and his enlightenment when I left. ”It’s a spiritual state of stillness too,” I said quietly.

“Go on.” Mouse leaned back on the floor, one arm supporting his weight.

I sighed and tried to remember. “Well, maybe, it’s about reaching a state of spiritual completeness. Maybe, you aren’t even you anymore, you’re just part of the whole world. Maybe, then, you can bend time because you are in tune with everything.” I got excited as I continued. It was an interesting hypothesis. I remembered getting into such talks with Ba when we would try to unravel the mysteries of the kung fu masters’ unbelievable powers. He had always leapt right in there with me, never discounting my ideas just because I was a kid.

“And you give up trying to control. You simply become a part of the world. So maybe that guy in your village wasn’t really doing it by himself. Maybe the whole universe recognized that what was happening shouldn’t happen, and it all worked together in order for him to prevent it. He was just part of the big picture,” I felt good, like I’d just realized something.

“Wah. Lang lui. I see what you’re saying.” Mouse let out a big breath as if he were digesting something profound and was letting it seep slowly into his mind.

As I pieced this hypothesis together, I pictured Ba stepping off the curb. If I had been there, maybe I could have been able to stop time, pluck him out of the line of danger and everything would have been different. Maybe Sophia and Darwin would have turned out to be just regular kids, and I would have finished university. Maybe Ma would have learned to be happy. I felt my heart loosen a bit. It was a lot of maybes.

My eyes got hot. I jumped up. “I gotta go.”

Mouse roused himself out of his thoughts. “Really? You don’t want to get something to eat? Talk more kung fu?”

“No, really, I have to go.” I picked up my laundry basket.

“Okay. Hold on, I’ll see you out.”

I went first down the stairs, clutching my laundry basket, and carefully stepping over the garbage. I let myself out through the door.

“Hey, lang lui, wanna watch another film, sometime?” Mouse called from the threshold.

I turned just before reaching the sidewalk. He was leaning against the door frame, a big smile on his face. He reminded me of a cat. A sleek, agile young tomcat. But he was kind and sincere. And cool. I realized I liked him.

“Okay. Sure,” I said and shrugged. I pretended to be casual as I walked away but I was shaking a little on the inside.

5 reviews for The Wondrous Woo

  1. InannaWebmaster

    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.

  2. InannaWebmaster

    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.

  3. InannaWebmaster

    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.

  4. InannaWebmaster

    “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.

  5. Inanna Admin

    The Wondrous Woo by Carrianne Leung
    Audiobook (Narrated by Lisa Truong) reviewed by Audiofile Magazine – June 2022

    Listeners are introduced to Miramar Woo, the eldest of three siblings whose family immigrated to Toronto in the 1970s. After the death of her beloved father, Miramar feels alone even in the presence of the rest of her family. Instead of leaving for university, she finds herself in the shadow of her brother, sister, and mother, who has had a mental breakdown. A slight sibilance in Lisa Truong’s narration gives Miramar’s voice a youthful quality. The story mentions that the entire Woo family are native speakers of Cantonese; their origins are reflected in believable Chinese accents. The occasional mispronunciation of an advanced word in English lends authenticity to Miramar as an English language learner.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Printed Copy, ePUB, PDF

You may also like…