Chia Chia Lin’s haunting debut novel, The Unpassing, begins with a story from Gavin, the ten-year-old narrator. In it, he and his older sister, Pei-Pei, watch as their mother seemingly dies after she trips with a plate of grapes. Her mouth hangs open; her breathing nearly stops. However, she soon stands and scolds her children for not calling an ambulance. Gavin declares his relief as his family escapes this faux visit from death. He tells us this story because he wants us to know that this “total unburdening” is something he craves now more than anything else. But he knows, even as a child, that he’ll never find it.
Set in the 1980s in a barren and chilled Alaska, Lin’s The Unpassing finds Gavin and his Taiwanese-American family struggling to survive. Gavin’s father brings his family to the US in hopes of finding and living the American dream. He takes various plumbing jobs, but none add up to much of anything. Gavin’s mother mostly thinks of going back home. Combined, they have little money, friends, or opportunities in this new, unknown world. To make matters worse, Gavin contracts meningitis from a peer at school, and he goes unconscious. When he comes to, he finds that something truly terrible has happened: his youngest sister, Ruby, caught the infection from Gavin and died.
Gavin suddenly becomes overwhelmed with guilt—and not only for him believing himself responsible for Ruby’s death. His guilt goes further, deeper: “People had begun to study me. They looked at my hands, my face, any exposed skin. Only two other students—neither of them fifth-graders—had contracted meningitis, and both had died. I, who had never done anything noteworthy in my ten years of life, had lived. I wanted to tell them they would find no explanation on me. I had already searched for it.”
Pei-Pei and Natty, Gavin’s young brother, similarly struggle to exist without their sister. Pei-Pei becomes angry and mean, lashing out at anyone in her presence. Natty takes a different route, channeling an imagination that dabbles in the eerily fantastic. He hears sounds above him at night that he believes belong to Ruby. He attempts to get his mother to prepare chicken porridge because he thinks Ruby will return for her favorite meal. In one especially heartbreaking scene, Natty, spying on his parents as they sleep, finds Gavin to tell him that the two adults in the bed are not his parents. He doesn’t recognize them—and, as he admits this realization to Gavin, he realizes he doesn’t recognize his brother either.
The parents, too, already fractured from the father’s decision to move to the US, grow further apart as each day passes.
When it seems as if things couldn’t possibly get worse, they do. They get much worse actually. It nearly goes without saying that The Unpassing is certainly a difficult read—one that will undoubtedly be too soaked in the tears of hopelessness for some readers. However, the amount of heaviness shouldn’t be a deterrent in undertaking the subtle world of wonder to be uncovered inside Lin’s affecting novel.
In fact, this sense of hazy wonderment swirls as the novel’s focus on loss takes over. There’s a sense of the unknown that exists in the woods outside the family’s house. The children ponder heaven and the afterlife. Lin uses the tragedy of the Challenger explosion to frame the father’s curiosity with loss as he turns his attention to the stars and the sky. When another character questions whether anyone will remember those lost in the crash, the father replies with a rare sense of force. “Me. I will remember,” he says. He doesn’t have to say another word for us to understand that he could be speaking about his Ruby just the same.
The Unpassing gives an affecting focus on showing its readers how children understand and process loneliness. It’s through Gavin that we find this topic presented the most movingly: “There were three of us, but it wasn’t enough. More and more, I had this sense—that we were insufficient. After Ruby died, I’d heard my father and his partner in the driveway. Hoyt said, “Good thing you had so many children.” The words kept coming back to me. Because they were wrong. We weren’t so many, we were so few.”
Like the characters contained within these pages, Lin’s prose feels concise. The sentences are lyrical—and poetic.
As much as the story turns to individualized responses to tragedy, it also dissects a collective reckoning with the myth of the American dream. In this unrelenting Alaska, this once-determined family finds little comfort. In fact, they find little hope at all. Those surrounding them rarely even seem to notice the family. The father says, “They see only half of us.” And Gavin goes even further when pointing to his father’s failed choice to bring the family to the US: “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 deaths aren’t purely physical in The Unpassing.
The ending is surprising considering what comes before it, and, somehow, it feels true—earned even.
The Unpassing is heartbreaking and painful but so is life in those moments when we suffer. Lin’s novel knows this more than most.
Bradley Sides is the author of Those Fantastic Lives: And Other Strange Stories. He lives with his wife in Huntsville, Alabama, where, on most days, he can be found teaching writing at Calhoun Community College. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.