There’s something almost addictive about The Woo-Woo, the new memoir from Vancouver writer Lindsay Wong. Darkly funny, steeped in the macabre and grotesque, the book is at once an unflinching portrait of a borderline abusive childhood and a testament to the power that family has to shape us for good or ill.
Chronicling Wong’s childhood in suburban Vancouver, The Woo-Woo details the author’s struggles and triumphs – but mostly struggles – as she attempts to make sense of the immediate Wong clan: Confucius Gentleman, the writer’s father, whose cruel humour is mirrored in his daughter’s own; Quiet Snow, Wong’s mother, who is terrified of the “woo-woo” (Chinese ghosts that pursue their family under the guise of mental illness); Poh-Poh, Wong’s maternal grandmother, long gone to the ravages of schizophrenia; and Beautiful One, Wong’s maternal aunt, who brings the family’s cumulative mental-health struggles to a head during an eight-hour suicide standoff with Vancouver police on the Ironworkers Memorial bridge. (There is also Deep Thinker and Make Lots of Money, Wong’s sister and brother, who operate as long-suffering younger children do in the presence of the older child: they remain quiet and almost unseen, mindful of the fact that this isn’t their story.)
It would be hard indeed to write a memoir that doesn’t sizzle with a cast like this. Wong’s writing sparkles with energy and wit, punctuating almost every scene with a sly, sharp gallows humour. The characters in The Woo-Woo are at once multi-faceted and fragile – strong enough to survive the bleakness of their lives while also hampered by cultural and familial beliefs (crying brings on the ghosts; western medicine is “full of bullshit”). The family’s history with mental illness does indeed become a kind of ghost haunting the author; as much as she might struggle against it, Wong is cognizant of the extent to which she is a product of the woo-woo, no matter how much she might look to her westernized upbringing as a way of leaving superstition behind.
There are times when Wong’s acceptance of woo-woo fatalism feels like it comes at the expense of the story; though vivid, the writing occasionally bogs down in the same preoccupations without moving the story ahead. (“[W]e would eventually learn that we could not run away from ourselves” is a sentiment repeated at multiple points throughout the book.) But mental illness and family are impossible to escape, and Wong’s eventual, uneasy balancing act makes for an engrossing read. Rich with gritty, hard-earned insight, The Woo-Woo illuminates the shaky reality of living across two cultures and offers a difficult, tenuous bridge between these worlds.