Books featuring a father with a mental illness · Books featuring a mother with a mental illness

Book Review: Tiger Daughter

Author: Rebecca Lim
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a middle grade readership)
Publisher: Allen and Unwin (2021)

Content warnings: mentions of depression, suicide

Wen Zhou is the daughter and only child of Chinese immigrants whose move to the lucky country has proven to be not so lucky. Wen and her friend, Henry Xiao – whose mum and dad are also struggling immigrants – both dream of escape from their unhappy circumstances, and form a plan to sit an entrance exam to a selective high school far from home. But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen’s resilience and resourcefulness to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows.”

I was interested in reading Tiger Daughter after hearing Rebecca Lim’s interview with Valerie Khoo on the So You Want to Be a Writer podcast. I purchased a copy immediately after Alison Evans (aka my favourite bookseller!) spoke so highly of it. My reaction cam be summed up in a single word: Wow! Rebecca Lim offered a nuanced and engaging story that explored themes of mental health, feminism and cultural expectations and norms. There were two COPMI (child of a parent with a mental illness) characters, and that’s what I’ll discuss first.

There was so much grace in Lim’s depiction of mental illness. This was evident both in the aftermath of someone Wen knew taking their own life (not specifying to avoid spoilers), and in Wen’s understanding of her father’s near-constant anger, which ceased only when he fell into periods of depression. For instance, it would be easy for Wen to hold onto anger at her father for his rage, easy, then, for readers to do the same. Instead, Lim showed readers another way forward as Wen reflected, “I listen to him upending things [in there], pounding on the walls…Working things out in the only way he knows how.” With this line, Lim reminded her audience that Wen’s father was doing his best with the skills he had, as we all are. This is not an excuse for his behaviour but it is an opportunity. Wen believed her father could learn how to manage his emotions more effectively, which may also offer COPMI readers the hope that their parent(s) could do the same.

The novel also had a feminist angle, and ended with a sense of hope for the agency of the female characters too. Lim balanced respectfully exploring Chinese cultural expectations of women with a more progressive, Western notion of how women can be. She contended that neither way is better, that one person can embody both ideas, as Wen did. Wen’s mother, for example, began the novel as a diminished version of herself. Her role in life was to be a wife and mother and to obey her husband without question. But Wen, through her determination to help Henry and his dad, modelled independence to her mother. Mrs. Zhou (or Teresa, as she chose to call herself) reclaimed her joy and sense of purpose, initially through cooking for Henry and his dad.

The title of the novel is a play on the idea of a “tiger mother,” with which I was unfamiliar before I read it. The story challenges this stereotypical idea of Asian parents and delicately critiques the cultural shame and silence around mental illness.

At the risk of this review turning into an essay, I’ll add that my favourite line was:

“…doing something risky is on your head and you have to wear the consequences. But what if you don’t do it? You’ll still due sometimes, and the dying might be an even worse kind…Dying while you’re living, by awful, incremental degrees.”

Wen didn’t want her life to feel like that, and as I read it, I knew I didn’t want mine to either.     

If you take away only one thing from this review of Tiger Daughter, let it be that I urge you – everyone – to read it!

You can buy a copy of Tiger Daughter from The Little Bookroom here.

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