Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang
The Unpassing, Chia-Chia Lin’s heartrending debut novel, depicts a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska, struggling to establish a home in the unforgiving wilderness. It is told from the perspective of the ten-year-old son, Gavin, who captures every minute detail. His observations of their physical surroundings often reveal the emotional currents that underlie their everyday lives.
In the beginning, we learn of the youngest sister’s tragic passing, and this trauma lingers with the remaining five family members as they face another calamity — a significant financial blow after the father, a plumber, is sued because of a water well that gravely harmed a little boy. During these trials, each family member deals with their own pain by themselves, alone. Because we rely on a ten-year-old narrator, we interpret scenes and situations through his limited understanding. We see and feel from the frame of Gavin’s vision, which is extremely pointed, much like our childhood experiences often are. The impact of seemingly insignificant details — the impression of a parent’s hand, the reappearance of a green Monopoly house — resonates. The flowing prose is detail-oriented, subtle yet poignant.
At the center of The Unpassing is a story of a family trying their best to belong, striving towards but never reaching the mythological American dream. At one point, the father warns, “You’ll have to work harder just to get the same things. Every small thing, every tiny thing, like how to hold your wallet and how to scratch your head, you’ll have to study and learn. And even then you’re not really seen as normal.”
Gavin takes this to heart; he studies every small thing, every tiny thing — the shape of a mushroom sprouting from the forest floor, the ghost trees on a family trip with no particular destination. For much of the novel, the children cope with their grief by wandering into the nearby woods. This is a place of solace, where friendships with the neighboring children blossom, but also a place of unpresented terror, where their younger brother could be lost for hours. Our narrator notes, “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 wanted.”
The expansive wilderness is all-consuming, but there is a strange comfort to be found in the unknown. “In the woods, it was darker and stiller, and I streaked through it all. I wasn’t heading home, though I suppose I was. There was always just this one path, headed one way. I had no choice, really; I was always headed home.” Even when running through the woods, he finds himself heading for home, for their teetering home, which “from the front it looks like a two-by-four.” This physical structure is both a shelter from the extreme natural elements as well as the site of family drama. It holds a fragile feeling of home for the displaced family.
Later in the woods, Gavin remarks, “The truth was, we didn’t know the woods at all. We only knew the path. Once you stepped off of it, there was no telling what you’d find.” When the family finds themselves forced from their humble home, their devastation becomes even more dire. Away from their first home in Taiwan and from any semblance of a home in Alaska, the family is uprooted, desperate, and without a sense of belonging. To counter this great instability and looming unknown, Gavin clings to his physical surroundings by allowing moments of awe in the immersive wilderness he finds himself in. His careful descriptions account for both external and internal sensations. For example, “Natty and I knelt and collected the potatoes with our hands. Some were still attached to the roots, and others were hiding by themselves in the loose dirt, which simply had to be brushed away. They were the size of golf balls and shooter marbles, all miraculously whole, and we uncovered them like artifacts. I shivered at the thought of them growing in the ground, enlarging, quiet and unseen, until there were five or six to a plant.” In the midst of hardship, Gavin attends to the smallest details and delights in the miracles that can so often be taken for granted.
Years later, Gavin laments, “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.” Drawing from Chia-Chia Lin’s vivid prose, it seems peace is never found in whole but rather created from attending to and piecing together fragments.
Words cannot always fully describe certain emotional states, and this limitation is especially tangible when working between languages. As the child of Taiwanese immigrants, to read romanized Taiwanese and about Gavin’s utterance of it was a particularly moving moment — “‘Khah kin-leh’… the phrase crooked and angular in my mouth.”
Like the narrator, my grasp of Taiwanese is fractured; it is my mother tongue, but my command of the language is stunted, “crooked and angular” like shattered porcelain. Piecing together words from English, Taiwanese, and Chinese, my attempts at expression are more of a mosaic than a complete thought. It is a broken and piecemeal identity, but sometimes that is the best we can do. And sometimes if we look closely at the shards, there is a calming awe to be found.
Chia-Chia Lin beautifully assembles words into sentences and sentences into a quietly powerful saga that dismantles oversimplified accounts of the immigrant experience. Through close observance of varying emotional and geographic landscapes, The Unpassing unfolds the pressing desire to belong in even the most harsh and difficult places.