A few months back, I sat with my mother in a hotel room and asked her to tell me about how her family had left Vietnam. I knew only the barest outlines of their passage—the airlift out of the country, the refugee camps in the Philippines, their move to Arkansas and then Washington. I knew small details, taken out of context—the beautiful silk jacket with the broken zipper that turned out to be a discarded polyester lining, the first time she and her sisters ate soft pretzels. But I didn’t know the larger story of how they’d come here or what they’d left behind. I knew the distances she had traveled but had no map for my own mother’s emotional experience—settled and assimilated in America, we hardly ever spoke of what had brought her here in the first place.
These gaps in a family story are the secrets that one is initiated into only when much older. The Unpassing, Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel, is concerned with those empty spaces. Narrated by Gavin, a slight, nervous 10-year-old, the second-eldest child in a Taiwanese immigrant family living in rural Alaska, The Unpassing illuminates these unspoken, shadowy moments of childhood. Tiny, dreamlike events, like conversations overheard in the middle of the night and an unrecognizable expression on a sleeping parent’s face, become weighted with the significance that comes from a child’s circumscribed perspective.
Lin’s use of a limited first-person is a canny device, allowing her to withhold the entirety of the family’s history, which she metes out slowly in intervals, occasionally sending the narrative into glimpses of the future, of Gavin’s adulthood, when the effects of his upbringing can be more clearly delineated. The result is a quietly dramatic novel that captures the confusion of childhood and the hazy quality of memory while depicting a family struggling to build a home in a harsh place. In Lin’s text, what’s offered is a larger narrative than that of American assimilation; instead the novel asks, “What is a family?”
Within The Unpassing’s first few pages, Gavin gets sick—a splitting headache and dizzying brightness overwhelm him—and falls into a deep sleep. When he wakes up, he learns that he and his sister Ruby contracted meningitis. He survives the infection, but Ruby, the baby of the family, does not. Lin sets this scene against the backdrop of the January 1986 Challenger disaster, during which Gavin was unconscious. It’s Pei-Pei, his teenage sister, who lets him know what happened:
“We have to go,” I said. “They’re showing the launch. Did we miss it already?”
She nodded. “Yeah, it was last week.”
“Everyone died.” She sat up and stared at me, evaluating something in my face.
It is also Pei-Pei’s responsibility to tell Gavin that Ruby died, a fact that no one in the family can fully process yet. In their small house, the children—once four, now three—sleep in the same room, their beds arranged along the walls: Pei-Pei, in high school; Gavin, in elementary school; and Natty, their 5-year-old brother. Their cramped bedroom is a metonym for the family’s straitened circumstances and cloistered nature; it is also the setting for the siblings’ secretive nighttime conversations. In the hours after Gavin finally wakes, his mother launders the sheets on Ruby’s empty bed, and in the middle of the night, his father sleeps on it, his body heavy in his work clothes. But by the next day, the bed is gone, with just four dents in the carpet to mark it. Gavin’s period of illness, a bubble of lost time he will never quite recover, is the first of many absences and silences in the book—a testament not only to his limited perspective as a child but also to his parents’ desire to elide, in varying ways, their own grief.
At times, The Unpassing can feel unbearable to read. The starkness of human feelings on display, set against the otherworldly landscape of Alaska, with its endless summers and sunless winters, feels almost too raw and exposed. Gavin’s family lives in relative isolation outside Anchorage, their house separated from others by woods and winding roads, on a lot that his father envisions as the beginning of a cul-de-sac like ones in regular neighborhoods, but a neighborhood never develops around it. Their community is small and largely white—though Gavin’s mother can drive 40 minutes, if she’s willing, to shop at a Korean market—with a tight-knit spirit that manifests itself in seasonal cookouts and a regional lottery with a modest cash prize, determined by betting on the exact time of the year’s first snowfall. Despite the seeming closeness of the surrounding community, Gavin’s family isn’t part of it in any meaningful way. His parents don’t seem to have any friends in town. Gavin mostly connects with the natural landscape instead: the woods behind his house; the mudflats by the water; the clearing where, in the spring, flowers bloom.
The stark and bare world is reinforced by Lin’s prose. Every moment that Gavin recalls is loaded with blunt significance—every petulant gesture of his father, every abortive attempt at connection with his mother. One night, after being punished by their mother for wearing nail polish, Pei-Pei cuts Gavin’s nails. Still upset by their mother’s callousness, Pei-Pei gets careless and cuts them too short, and the next day, Gavin’s fingers throb painfully—another failed attempt at familial bonding. The tempo at which Lin renders the doings of the family and the obstacles they face is slow but inexorable. The novel is emotionally bare, but it’s an austere, quiet kind of exposure.
Soon after Ruby’s death, Gavin and his mother make a routine trip to the grocery store, then abruptly detour to the mudflats, where a beluga whale has beached. It’s a moment of softness, a place where the characters can breathe. The two walk barefoot on the cool silt of the beach, and Gavin’s mother shows a remarkable tenderness toward the beached whale: “She dipped a loafer into the puddle and dribbled water onto the whale’s back, spreading the liquid with her hands.”
At the mudflats, they also meet a stranger, a man who speaks only English. When Gavin’s feet get cold, he offers to warm them with his hands, in one of the novel’s few displays of physical affection between characters—a moment that the boy cherishes. When the man asks if Gavin has a father, Gavin says yes.
“And do you live with him?”
My mother moved her hand very slightly and dug her fingernail into my arm. She said to me in a low voice, in Taiwanese, “Say no.”
I looked at the notch her fingernail had left on me. “Yes,” I said.
Silence followed, and then my mother said in the same tone, “Couldn’t you just have pretended… That you don’t have one.”
Gavin’s mother is an unpredictable, sometimes inscrutable figure. The family just barely scrapes by, and she holds it together while dreaming of being in another place, of being “someone else.” She constantly argues with her husband about money and his chronic joblessness, frequently punishes her children, and embarrasses Pei-Pei by buying her ugly clothes—partly because of the family’s poverty, partly as a means of control. Yet her harshness, her filial demands, emerge from a particular kind of deep, impossible love, in a depiction that will feel familiar to any child of immigrant parents. Lin renders this complicated motherhood unsparingly. The novel opens with a test that Gavin’s mother gives to her children by faking a sudden fall. She’s angry when Gavin and Pei-Pei respond by doing nothing. “What kind of children have I raised?” she asks. Yet Lin also depicts her rare, fierce longing—a woman who desires more from this life than she has been allowed.
By contrast, Gavin’s father is a weaker figure. He wants to raise his children to be strong—insisting that Gavin finish every bit of his meager meals and assigning him a jumping exercise in order to help him grow taller—but he himself seems lacking, both as a moral authority and as a provider. This aspect of his character is alluded to in overheard conversations and offhand comments from Gavin’s mother, gesturing at a larger story that has been kept from the children.
One night, as he and his father are looking at Natty’s drawings, Gavin suddenly finds himself swept into this secret story: “My father grabbed the sleeve of my long johns, pinching my skin near my elbow. ‘What did she say about me?… It’s not true,’ he said. ‘Or not the way she tells it.’ ” Here, Lin gestures at the absence while painting details around it, the things Gavin notices, even though he doesn’t yet know the truth about his father. “The room seemed off-kilter,” Gavin recalls, “with all its shadows thrown upward, at a slant.”
Pei-Pei, for her part, acts as eldest daughters in so many immigrant families do: She is an intermediary with the outside world. However ambivalently, she serves as a bridge, as a secret-keeper, translator, bearer of bad news, and guardian. When their parents fail to provide affection, Pei-Pei reluctantly steps in here too, taking care of little Natty: “In the rare, puny circle of Pei-Pei’s tenderness, Natty had cried. Whispery wails that ended in openmouthed silence, his face contorted with the need for air.” Later, when their father builds a faulty well and its contaminated water causes a young boy to get sick, Pei-Pei is the only one who can help her father navigate an impending lawsuit from the aggrieved family. She stays up late into the night, poring over a dictionary to help him research legal terms.
Observed from Gavin’s point of view, Pei-Pei’s rapid coming of age is mystifying. She is on a path to assimilation—at school and to their white neighbors the Dolans, she goes by Paige—that Gavin can’t yet comprehend wanting. At 10 years old, he’s still thoroughly rooted in his parents’ world. He’s at the age a boy wants to be loved; he can’t imagine finding it anywhere else. He still loves his family, especially his mother, even though he attempts to express that love in a way she doesn’t understand. From their trip to the beach:
When she stopped to catch her breath, I stared into her wind-raked face and said, in a voice that came out scratchy, “I love you.”
She narrowed her eyes to consider me. “Where did you learn that?” she asked.
Meanwhile, the 14-year-old Pei-Pei turns away from the family almost completely. She has friends at school; later, she gets a part-time job, which takes her out of the house and gives her money to spend on her own things. And she becomes romantically—or at least physically—involved with the elder Dolan child, Collin, who goes to school with her. Ada, Collin’s little sister, shows Gavin their siblings’ secret place, a trailer in the Dolans’ backyard, which fills him with longing: “My throat clotted. They had a hideaway, where loneliness couldn’t nab them. They could rest. They could just rest.”
Like Gavin, the reader comes to crave these small glimpses of joy. Scarcity is a motif throughout Lin’s novel—certainly economic scarcity, as demonstrated by the family’s financial woes, but also, more pressingly, emotional scarcity. Though fluently written and acutely observed, Lin’s characters seem locked inside themselves, trapped by an inability to communicate what lies in their hearts. The novel perfectly conveys the loneliness of being in a family: the paradox of the ties that inextricably bind us together despite our never truly understanding the people we call kin.
Of the family’s five devastated members, Natty’s and Gavin’s loneliness is the most obvious. As the two youngest, without external outlets like Pei-Pei’s or wishful dreams like their mother’s, they’re keenly aware of how grief has changed their family, and the bonds they seek elude them. Natty experiences and becomes aware of this lack through almost spiritual means. At just 5 years old, he’s small and haunted, with a kind of openness that renders him seemingly psychic: He calls certain thoughts “dreams” and claims to know the whereabouts of their dead sister. His porousness, similar to Gavin’s, makes him sensitive to the subtle dynamics of their grieving family, though neither of the children has the vocabulary or maturity to identify exactly what’s happening. One night, Natty and Gavin peer into their parents’ bedroom as they sleep. Natty is nearly hysterical, “the edge of a sob bending his voice,” as he insists to Gavin that their parents have disappeared, have been replaced by other people. In the bedroom, their mother’s expression is “strange—melting…her skin looked detachable from the flesh, something that could be shed.” “Those people are not Mama and Daddy,” Natty insists. “In the dark,” Gavin reflects, “it was not hard to believe what he was saying, that no one was left in our family but the two of us. Everyone had changed—we didn’t know them, and they didn’t know us.”
Later that summer, Gavin and his mother reluctantly attend a solstice cookout hosted by the town, hoarding free hamburgers, reindeer sausages, and cans of soda. Unbeknownst to her family, Pei-Pei has signed up for the talent show, and she performs a song she used to sing to Ruby. “She looked unafraid as she held the mic with both hands…. It was obvious, to everyone but me, that I was related to this keeper of strange, lush melodies,” Gavin says. He is moved by his sister’s soulful performance, but back with his mother, the two are silent, the emotional space between them a gulf uncrossed. “I looked back at my mother, who sat alone with paper plates and soda cans lodged in the grass around her,” Gavin recalls. The description is brief but unbearably poignant—a physical rendition of his mother’s isolation in a country she doesn’t think of as home, surrounded by the evidence of her thrift and standoffishness amid her neighbors’ easy closeness. After Pei-Pei’s performance, whatever desire Gavin has of connecting with his mother goes unmet: “We didn’t speak of what had happened, or of any memories we shared.”
The Dolans, whom Gavin, Natty, and Pei-Pei visit often, act as a foil for their own tumultuous family life. Though the Dolans have known tragedy as well—Ada and Collin’s mother died some years before—they have an economic stability that Gavin cannot imagine, let alone accept benefiting from. When Mr. Dolan invites Gavin and Natty to dinner, he notices how thin the brothers are and packs them a bag of groceries to take home. Yet Gavin can’t bring himself to accept it: “He wanted to give the bag to me, and I wanted to take it. But there was some kind of block.” Gavin is acutely aware of the difference between his family and the other families in town, and even his smallest observations become heart-wrenching. Upon seeing several ladders—“ten or fifteen”—in the backyard of the Dolan house, Gavin wonders, “I didn’t know why someone would need so many ladders. It wasn’t as though you could string them together and climb somewhere far away.”
Amid this backdrop of scarcity, the only thing that feels lush and full is the woods. Outside the strictures of family, school, and responsibility, within which Gavin’s family fails to measure up, the children can play there; they can become themselves. “Where the woods began, there was only a stripe of darkness, with a pale glow at the opening of the trail,” Gavin notes. “When you stood at that entry point, I knew, you sensed something waiting for you in there. Some days it was a foreboding, and some days it was a kind of comfort, a promise of company.” It’s in these woods that Natty disappears, at the book’s climax, in a moment that forces all the characters to come together and the family’s dark secret to come to the surface at last.
The Unpassing ends decades later, with a slim last chapter told from the adult Gavin’s point of view. His mother, now aged and alone, in the last year of her life, asks him to cut her hair. Hesitantly, Gavin snips off just a tiny length:
“That’s not going to do it. I want it off my neck.”
“Get someone else to do it,” I muttered as I made the next cut. But I knew she didn’t have anyone else. Her friends had not lasted, and her children had scattered.
Our perspective now is wide-angle, fleshed out. We have more knowledge of what has transpired and what has shaped Gavin’s childhood. We not only are aware of the existence of those gaps in the family history but also, knowing more about the characters, understand how they came to be. As an adult, Gavin still doesn’t have the relationship with his mother that he coveted as a child—he never will, not in the ways that he imagined—or that we might crave for him. Lin withholds that easy ending from us; instead, we must sit with what family is, not what we long for it to be.
The novel’s triumph is in Lin’s depiction of the relationship between parents and children and their shifting responsibilities to one another, developing over time. Its narrative also poses a difficult and poignant set of questions: How, in a family, can we love those who have wronged us? What secrets lie buried in our closest kin and why? Lin’s novel doesn’t offer any conclusive answer, because she is interested in something between knowing and not knowing. Narrating from that gap, she gives us a haunting story all its own.