The trope of the absent child often casts a grim shadow over our literary landscape but rarely with the acute psychological insights of Chia-Chia Lin's poised debut, "The Unpassing." Set in the mid-1980s, the novel charts the yawing emotional odyssey of a Taiwanese-American family hounded by grief and threats as they try to salvage their connections after tragedy.
Gavin, Lin's plucky narrator, is a 10-year-old boy who lives in a meager house on the shore of Alaska's Cook Inlet, 40 miles from Anchorage. His immigrant parents teeter from paycheck to paycheck while struggling with the needs of Gavin, his adolescent sister Pei-Pei, and 5-year-old brother Natty. A ghost looms to undo them: the youngest child, Ruby, felled by an infection likely transmitted by Gavin. Their mother, yearning for Taiwan and an ailing parent, lashes out at her husband, a manual laborer sinking beneath a tide of liquor. Their marriage founders.
But like most children, Gavin proves preternaturally resilient, finding companionship in a classmate, Ada, while Pei-Pei brightens beneath the erotic gaze of Ada's teenage brother, Collin. Lin conjures these quotidian lives in a shimmering prose: "Behind their shed was a trailer propped up on cinder blocks with rust streaks running down its broad face, so it looked to be grieving its loss of the open road. … Collin was a hockey player. Pei-Pei said he hovered over ice like a dragonfly over a pond."
If you're expecting a quirky Alaskan story along the lines of the old television series "Northern Exposure," think again: Lin guides us subtly but relentlessly into a wilderness of anguish. In the background, a newsreel of catastrophe — the Challenger shuttle explosion, the Chernobyl disaster — sets the stage for dark drama. When the father is implicated in the poisoning of a white boy, the parents load up the three children into a dilapidated car and strike out for a holiday that unravels them further; even worse fortune awaits them on their return.
But the bleakness here is redeemed by Lin's honesty and honed craft, her masterful evocation of the Last Frontier: "Once a bull moose spent hours rubbing its mossy antlers against a cluster of young spruces near our house, thrashing the trees silly, and my mother had stood behind the front door with a piece of steel pipe in her hand."
And Lin's characters are fully realized, from the neurotic, despondent parents to the confident, warmhearted Ada to coolly rational Pei-Pei to Gavin himself, a complex person already, grappling with a pain whose meaning eludes him: "I thought once more of how I alone knew Ruby's location," he says, "how cumbersome that knowledge was, big and waterlogged."
"The Unpassing" is the work of a mature artist, an eloquent, unsparing testament to the vicissitudes of our lives, how love can plunge us into the brutal cold of a long Arctic night.
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing" and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Chia-Chia Lin.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 278 pages, $26.