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; 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.
This review originally appeared here on Buried.In.Print.