An ACHUKA Book of the Year 2023
ACHUKA Book of the Day 18 Jan 2023
What a truly wonderful novel this is! I urge everyone, young and old, to read it. It tells the story of a Chinese family of five (two parents, two children and one grandmother) who leave their home in Singapore and begin a new life in Australia, not knowing a word of English. The affection Marr shows for her characters is understandable, as they are based on her own family, who moved to Australia in similar circumstances.
The book opens just before the move. The two sisters, Peijing and Biju, 11 and 6 respectively (in real life Marr and her sister were a little younger and the age gap between them was less) are playing with Little World. This is a cardboard box which they fill with drawings of various creatures and features of landscape. “It had started as a small act of defiance when Peijing would draw in the columns of her workbooks when she should be doing homework.” Ma Ma considers time taken creating pictures ill-spent. The sisters believe their world is a secret known only to themselves, but periodically an Extinction occurs. Beijing knows it was Ma Ma who was responsible for the Extinctions. On the big day of departure comes the worst Extinction. “There was nothing left in the box.”
The sisters take the box with them, nevertheless, and begin to repopulate it once settled in their new Australian home.
What is so impressive about this novel? Firstly, the relationship between Peijing and Biju. Although Peijing is the older, it is Biju who drives the girls’ imaginative, escapist play, by telling stories based on Chinese folklore. Secondly, the adult members of the family are vividly portrayed. Ma Ma resists the western lifestyle and yearns to return to Singapore to rejoin the extended Chinese family. Ba Ba — a workaholic employed by an architectural office — works five days a week instead of seven (one of the main motivations for the move of country) but otherwise shows little inclination to assimilate. Things change when Ah Ma, the grandmother, begins to act unpredictably and the family have to consider moving her into a home. Ba Ba takes some extended leave and spends more time with the girls. The change in the family’s circumstances and their slow accommodation to Australian life is expertly handled. Thirdly, the book has a vivid supporting cast. Miss Lena, Peijing’s warm and unfamiliarly informal class teacher (I gather Marr’s first novel, which I didn’t read, was written as a hymn of gratitude to teachers); Joanna, a girl ostracised by the other schoolchildren but befriended by Peijing; and Gemma, the class bighead. Fourthly, the way Marr marshals these characters into a story that contains many big moments that cry out for dramatic adaptation (a TV drama or a movie), alongside the metaphor of the Little World that plays less and less of a role in the sisters’ lives.
It is, quite simply, a marvellous book — one that has left me feeling the sort of rich readerly glow that I remember first encountering in the 1990s when I was reviewing books by Sharon Creech and Joan Bauer.
A big-hearted, magical story about sisterhood and a family finding their way in a new place.
Everything so far, if Peijing had to sum it up, was a string of small awkward experiences that she hoped would end soon. The night of the Mid-Autumn festival, making mooncakes with Ah-Ma, was the last time Peijing remembers her life being the same. Now facing a new home, a new school and a new language, everything is different.
Peijing thinks everything is going to turn out okay as long as they all have each other. But cracks are starting to appear in the family. Biju, lovable but annoying, needs Peijing to be the dependable big sister. Ah-Ma keeps forgetting who she is; and Ma Ma and Ba Ba are no longer themselves. Peijing has no idea how she’s supposed to cope with the uncertainties of her own world while shouldering the burden of everyone else. If her family are the four quarters of the mooncake, where does she even fit in?
Follow the author on Instagram:
View this post on Instagram