By Chia-Chia Lin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 278 pages. $26. Available on Amazon
In this dark but beautifully written and ultimately life-affirming novel, an immigrant Taiwanese family living near Anchorage in the 1980s confronts isolation and possibility.
When 10-year-old Gavin wakes from a meningitis-induced coma, he learns that his younger sister has died from the same disease. The parents, without a support system of family or close friends, avoid speaking of the death or undertaking any type of formal grieving. The guilt-driven Gavin and his two remaining siblings grapple with their loss while also dealing with the family’s cultural differences and poverty.
“My father liked to declare that he had moved us to Alaska so we could be closer to the stars,” Gavin tell us. An engineer in Taiwan, in Alaska the father becomes a well driller and sometimes plumber—perhaps lacking in skill or at least luck. The family lives in a shabby house at the end of a road, where the father imagines that a prosperous subdivision will soon grow up around them. The mother, less enthusiastic about the move, dreams of returning to her seaside village, her accustomed foods and her ailing father.
Gavin again: “Our aliveness was precarious.” This narrator, speaking as an adult years later, perfectly captures the experience of the child, who is often frightened or confused by circumstances and the actions of the adults around him. The boy’s emotional and unarticulated understanding at the time finds its words in the adult’s voice: “It was a kind of violence, what my father had done. He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.”
“The Unpassing,” a first novel by Lin, herself a member of an immigrant family, has already received considerable national attention, especially for the way it probes America’s mythmaking about the immigrant experience and achievement of the “American dream.” The story further resists the myths and clichés of Alaska life; Alaska as depicted here is less about its “last frontier” opportunities for invention, reinvention, and romantic adventuring and more about the dead-end road, squirrels in the attic, the lock on the door, the off-the-path disorienting forest.
This is all the more remarkable considering that Lin’s direct Alaska experience is limited. Years ago she spent a summer in Anchorage as an intern and used her free time to explore the region’s trails and wild places. Her descriptions of flora, fauna, mudflats, and Alaskan rituals of fishing and clamming are impressively recognizable, treated not as exotic background but as part of the fabric of the place in which her characters live.
In one scene, Gavin and his father venture onto Turnagain Arm’s mudflats. “The land around us was so flat, and so close in shade to the mountains and sky, it seemed we were tottering on a thin bridge—all around us were infinite openings to dive into void.” When the father begins to sink into the mud, Gavin tries to find something to help. “I attacked the largest tree, barely bigger than a shrub. It whipped back and forth and slapped its leaves together as I tried to break or twist off a branch. For a few long minutes I wrestled with it, my heart fluttering with exhaustion, the edges of the world warping in. . . . When I let go, the tree looked no worse for its thrashing.” The drama here is all in the child’s “thunderous” failure and his recognition that he might be very much like his own inept father. (It doesn’t spoil anything to know that the father crawls free.)
In another, deeply affecting scene, a neighbor family invites the two youngest children to stay for dinner. The father gently probes the children, who are clearly underfed, about their home life, and Gavin makes up lies about the chicken and sandwiches they eat, the relatives they visit in Florida.
Lin has said that part of her inspiration for the book was a newspaper article she once read about a boy lost for several days in woods around Anchorage. She imagines a similar fate for one of her characters, in a scene that includes what may be the best-ever depiction of how hypothermia takes over a cold, wet person. Again, this scene exists not for its own dramatic sake but to carry readers into the actions and reactions of the characters. It’s entirely believable that fearful people on the edge of society hesitate to call for help, and that the trauma associated with a lost child (on the heels of one who has been lost in the most final of ways) can result in extreme responses.
“The Unpassing” is an impressive debut, both for the story it tells and for its exceptional writing quality. If one function of literary fiction is to bring readers into the lives of others that we might develop empathy for those who may not share our own circumstances, this novel is a standout.
Consider this: When the mother insists on stopping to fill a pot with flower buds she will cook in a soup, the children are embarrassed. “Cars were few, but the six or seven that passed by were enough to make Pei-Pei [the daughter] screech—about what people should and should not do in broad daylight, and how we were animals, escapees, clowns.”