A deep melancholy persists in the grim, breathtakingly beautiful debut novel by Chia-Chia Lin, who writes a story set in Alaska that tracks most closely Gavin, the school-age son of a family of four children and two parents with roots in Taiwan — “that junk island,” according to the father, “where you couldn’t find pizza … [y]ou couldn’t mention certain dates” — which they’ve abandoned to make a life on the bleak outer reaches of Alaska.
At the center of “The Unpassing,” even an attempt to make cookies is a kind of teeth-clenching disaster for the family — “always just a notch away from normal.” A foul burning stench comes from a stack of books they’ve forgotten in the oven, part of the meager belongings they’ve struggled to hide from their father’s boss. Then men drink baijiu, too much of it, and the matter of a faulty well the father built, which poisoned a child across town, remains unresolved. (“How sick?” his wife asks. “Sick enough to ask for money,” her husband says.) Moreover, the mother has forgotten to call Taiwan, and her father is going to die any day.
In one poignant moment, mother and son scramble across train tracks to a giant boulder beside tidal flats. They encounter a man and then a beached whale. “Here is a whale, I told myself,” Gavin thinks, “and then I wondered if it would die.” The feel of the mud and the vast sigh of the suffering animal — it’s nothing compared with the disappointment the mother shows when her son confirms to the stranger he does indeed have a father. “Couldn’t you just have pretended?” Gavin’s mom pleads. For one stunning moment, the son realizes his mother wants something else.
It’s not just poverty that drives a lot of the desire animating this riveting book. The husband not only can’t — but seemingly won’t — provide, including when two of his four children fall deathly ill. But the family’s problem isn’t just a lack of means; it’s also cultural dislocation. The father, we learn, keeps illnesses from a hospital because he’s terrified of police, of having no one understand them. “Every small thing, every tiny thing,” he tells Gavin later, “like how to hold your wallet and how to scratch your head, you’ll have to study. And even then you’re not really seen as normal.” Without the strength that money and social ties might provide, author Lin seems to suggest, any one of us might feel just as vulnerable when the worst happens: In this case, one of the children doesn’t survive.
That loss is just the beginning. Menace and decay creep in from all over. It seems, Gavin thinks, that the woods “wanted something of us. And the farther you went into the woods, the bigger that thing was, and the more intense it was wanted.” Nature and what goes wrong there haunts the book: not just the wilds of Alaska or the vast ocean that separates Taiwan from America, but the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle high above. It’s this latter disaster that obsesses Gavin’s father: a mostly brittle and flawed figure, he clings to clippings of Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the female teacher-astronaut who died, hoping in re-readings of her too-brief excellence that he can learn something, even if it couldn’t save her.
Lin excels when she gets small, with finely observed renderings of the family’s surroundings. There’s that whale, and the flying squirrels in the attic, but also the mushrooms and a giant tree that falls, exposing its massive root ball, and the network of aspens that are thousands of years old. Things grow and die and snow falls and the ocean is giant and cold. “Once a bull moose spent hours rubbing its mossy antlers against a cluster of young spruces near our house,” Gavin recalls in a memorable image, “thrashing the trees silly, and my mother had stood behind the front door with a piece of steel pipe in her hand.”
Gradually, the children stick up for themselves, learning how they might thrive, even if the parents apparently never will. It’s maddening, the ease of non-family characters, who always seem to glide through life without any of the agony or calamity of an immigrant family in harm’s way. “Gladness and guilt,” Gavin comes to think, “fought over every last space in me.”
Late in the novel, the reader will be torn: rooting for the family to survive but aching at the same time with the foreknowledge that survival might not be what they actually need. In other words: This America, this Alaska, will resist them. Do they go back to Taiwan?
Even after another loss, forcing the family to flee their house for a spell that is entirely involuntary, the mother embodies the way a woman like her could be powerful but with a strength that can seem beside the point. “I’m not afraid of a little water,” she says, announcing she will catch fish for dinner with a broken net she’s found in their campsite’s overflowing garbage. “Water is afraid of me.” Facing yet another calamity, back in the ravaged house, she manages to sit her children down to dinner, but her love is also a threat: “Sit,” she says, “and if you get up, I’ll beat you to death.”
The way this chilling, captivating book concludes will delight as much as it challenges, offering as it does a blend of escape, tragedy, triumph, loss and what we’ve expected all along. “It was a kind of violence,” Gavin concludes, thinking of his father. “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.”
Farrar, Straux, & Giroux, $26, 288 pages
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”