This is a novel about a Taiwanese family that emigrates to the US and finds itself in Alaska. The date at the start is the mid-1980s, with the male narrator aged 10, having gone to the US at the age of three. The father is a plumber and has moved to Alaska with his family from Michigan looking for work.
The family lives 30 miles from Anchorage and drives there for all their shopping. Their life is bleak, both inside their home and outside. There is no grandeur of nature in this presentation, and indoors everything is “junk, just junk … stacks of old blankets and twenty-pound bags of rice and dusty boxes of things we had bought on sale and never used.” Half the things in the house were bought from the same Anchorage store.
It’s hard to say which is worse, nature or the home. Gloom is everywhere you look in the opening chapters, from the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle (seen on TV) to the death of a younger sister, who disappeared in the snowy landscape and was declared simply as “lost.”
Memories of Taiwan aren’t much better — a place where you couldn’t talk about history or mention certain dates, where the family had briefly owned some land that was given them by the Japanese, then taken away by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after World War II.
The narrator even manages to make the stars gloomy: “What was so great about puffs of dust and gas?” Nothing could be further removed from Wordsworth’s childhood, “trailing clouds of glory,” or Thoreau’s Walden Pond than this.
Later on things get slightly more humane. Noises in the attic cause the family to think the lost girl’s ghost has come back to haunt them, but soon learn that squirrels have taken up residence and, after they have blocked their means of entry, discover the animals dead in the nearby woods. Then there’s a hideous storm, followed by a touch of domestic comedy. A major climax, however, now ensues.
It transpires the father in fact has the ashes of the lost girl in the glove compartment of his car. He and the narrator drive to some mud-flats where the father plans to bury the urn, only for both of them to be sucked down into the mud. They only just manage to escape, and the narrator finally scatters his sister’s ashes in bitter temperatures under a dispassionate moon, lamenting that inside the urn they had been contained in a cellophane plastic sachet sealed with a rubber band.
What really happened to the dead child is still not revealed. What we learn instead is how the father, though he won’t tell his family, was being sued for his role in some faulty repair-work.
Lin has said that this book’s perplexing title, The Unpassing, could refer to the death of the young girl, but also to the move across oceans that is emigration. I still find it enigmatic. The novel won the 2020 Clark Fiction Prize, and was runner-up for several others.
Things soon get grim again, and worse. One day a “Notice to Quit” sign is pasted onto their door. The father announces they’re all going for a vacation, and two weeks of camping and living off fish and clams follow. When they get back home they find the locks have been changed. The father manages to break in, though, and there follows a meal of pig’s bones and forest plants. Later their food becomes “on the edge of edible.” Also, there’s no furniture anywhere apart from what they’d taken with them in their van.
The ambiance of this book may be gloomy, even depressing, but there’s something haunting about the tale nonetheless. Central to the book’s interest is the relationship between the children — the narrator, a younger brother aged five and an older sister. The lost child is also never far from their minds, and is sometimes treated as still alive and present.
There are also neighbors, the Dolans, with their two children. One day the narrator and his brother are invited there for dinner — roast chicken with baked potatoes and chocolate cake, luxuries they haven’t enjoyed for some time. They are too embarrassed to accept a bag of food Mr. Dolan offers them, but he forces it to them anyway. The Dolans have experienced loss too, however — the mother died some time before. No characters are exempt from tragedy in this novel.
An item on the Internet suggests Lin Chia-chia is reluctant to talk about how far the novel is based on her own experience, but such reluctance surely suggests that it is. She must at the very least know Alaska well as a familiarity with its flora is everywhere apparent. But then in the acknowledgements she thanks some people for welcoming her to Anchorage in 2004, so maybe her familiarity is only the result of a prolonged visit.
The last 50 pages are riveting, and I couldn’t put the book down till I’d finished it. A disappearance is already at the heart of this story, but multiple disappearances, albeit only suspected ones, are to say the least unexpected. In the end, only one character fails to return, but it would be a shame to reveal which one it is.
The Unpassing ends with the narrator back in Taiwan, probably on the East Coast, and feeling at home neither there nor anywhere else. This suits the melancholy tone of the book, but may also be a comment on the effects of migration in general.
This may be a bleak book — the menacing Alaska landscape, the deluded children, the manic mother, the ineffectual father — but it’s also an intimate one, especially notable for its insights into child psychology. It also contributes something that is surely original to the literature of Taiwanese migration to North America, and it will be a long time before I forget it, or shake off the strange hold it has had these last few days on my imagination.
By Chia-chia Lin
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