Once upon a time, a family moved to the edge of the woods in Alaska to be closer to the stars—so close, the father told his children, they could feel the heat.
As in all fairy tales, though, things take a dark turn in The Unpassing, Bay Area novelist Chia-Chia Lin’s compelling debut, which examines grief, love, and survival in the wake of tragedy.
In the opening pages, the narrator, 10-year-old Gavin, falls ill with meningitis. When he wakes up from a coma, he learns that his little sister, Ruby, has passed away from the infection and the Challenger space shuttle has exploded not long after liftoff—personal and national calamities that the Taiwanese immigrant family will grapple with in the months and decades to come.
Join Chia-Chin Lin and Vanessa Hua in conversation on Sunday, August 18 at Books Inc. Mountain View. Details here.
The novel’s fable-like quality carries over into Lin’s description of the Alaskan wilderness, blooming and bountiful but with a perpetual menace. “It seemed to me the woods wanted something of us. And the farther you went into the woods, the bigger the thing was, and the more intensely it was wanted,” Gavin tells the reader.
Dangers lurk everywhere: A falling tree nearly hits his older sister, Pei-Pei; cow parsnip gives her blisters and a rash; and she develops hypothermia while searching for their younger brother, Natty, who goes missing one night. Their father installs a well that poisons another family’s drinking water. He gets sued, and their precarious financial situation worsens. After an eviction, they break back into their rental home. Their food and fuel are dwindling, and winter is coming.
Yet Lin also beautifully portrays the wonder and discovery of childhood. Despite the harsh, perilous landscape, Gavin experiences moments of grace in nature: the alder shrub leaves that the children press against arms as a tattoo, the spruce tips he chews with his neighbor Ada, and the beluga that beaches until freed by the rising tide.
Like his thwarted father and dreamy, artistic brother, Gavin comes off as passive, a scrawny boy filled with dread. The women take charge. Pei-Pei translates lawsuit documents for her father, sings with confidence at a summer solstice celebration, and finds a job as an in-home aide. “Sometimes it seemed to me that Pei-Pei knew the entire world,” Gavin marvels. In his memories, preschooler Ruby is just as vivacious, eating “like a man,” shoving food into her mouth with both hands.
His resourceful mother catches fish in the river, stockpiles downed trees for firewood, and harvests daylily bulbs for soup. Far from her subtropical homeland, she finds the familiar in what might seem an alien landscape. “I’m not afraid of a little water. Water is afraid of me,” she tells her family.
Reached by email, Lin explained that her own mother served as inspiration for the character—both hail from rural Taiwan, and they share a “profound dissatisfaction and bottomless energy.” She emphasized, however, that the mother in her novel is a singular character, entirely her own person.
The American-born Lin grew up in a number of places, including Boston, Taipei, Pittsburgh, and Hartford, Connecticut. About 15 years ago, she spent a few months working in south-central Alaska. “There’s something about the expansiveness that cracks you open a little,” she said.
She chose the novel’s title because it leaves room for multiple interpretations, including the failure of the family to integrate or “pass” as Americans and the fact that a passage across the ocean can’t be undone; true return is impossible.
For Gavin and his family, there is no happily ever after. Everyone scatters, and in adulthood he remains marked by unease and unrest. Yet at the novel’s end, he recalls a small, tender moment when the family was whole—a memory that sustains him still, like a candle that flickers through the darkest night.
• By Chia-Chia Lin
• Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages, $26
Three new books about strangers in a strange land
The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, by Julia Flynn Siler (2019): This California author and journalist’s third book of nonfiction examines the trafficking of young Chinese women and girls, and the haven the victims found starting in the late 19th century at the Occidental Mission Home, at the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues, by Devi S. Laskar (2019): The debut novel by this Bay Area writer unfolds during a single morning and delivers a searing, lyrical portrayal of an American-born woman of Bengali heritage. After police mistakenly shoot her, as she lies bleeding in her driveway, her life flashes before her eyes.
Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, by Gordon H. Chang (2019): This gripping account by a Stanford professor draws upon unprecedented research to restore the forgotten history of the Chinese migrants who tunneled through granite and laid track across the desert to complete the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago.