Most of us who venture into the wild for fun and fulfillment can do so with a belief that, even if we’re tested, everything will turn out alright in the end. In Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel The Unpassing, a Taiwanese American family struggles to eke out a life on the outskirts of Anchorage—and part of what makes the story so gripping is the lack of any underlying sense that things will turn out alright.
When the family moved to Anchorage, it was into a creaky house in an empty cul-de-sac where the father had hoped a neighborhood would take root and a middle-class life could thrive. Instead, amid the isolation that many immigrants face, life has become a series of “should haves.” Once a proud engineer, the father resorts to plumbing and odd jobs, leaving his resourceful and increasingly resentful wife with the burden of keeping four children clothed, fed, and safe on the edges of the south-central Alaskan wilderness. Through the eyes of the book’s narrator, Gavin, we quickly understand that the family lives a threatened existence. When Gavin falls seriously ill at age ten, he awakens days later in a fog to learn he’s had meningitis and his four-year-old sister, Ruby, has died from it. The father is later sued over shoddy work on a water well that resulted in the poisoning of a customer’s son. He lapses into a state of abject passivity.
As Gavin says of his family: “Our aliveness was precarious.”
It’s from this teetering state that The Unpassing sets in motion a complicated and refreshingly unromantic family drama. While Gavin and his siblings try to go about the business of being kids, exploring the forest at their doorstep and making friends with distant neighbors, the forces of grief and dysfunction tear at the fabric of the household. The novel’s tension mounts like accumulating snow on the strained roof.
“Children experience the world so dramatically and fully. They’re really in touch with their senses. As an outsider, I experienced Alaska at a different, heightened level, the way a child would,” Lin says.
The drama plays out against a set of intriguing, often menacing landscapes—the shadowy backyard spruce forest, brooding coastal inlets, the Kenai River glimmering with silver salmon. One of the immediate pleasures of Lin’s writing is the heightened perception it brings to these environments. While it’s actually adult Gavin who’s narrating the story in retrospect, we’re effectively experiencing the world through ten-year-old Gavin’s senses. In one especially vivid scene, he and his mother encounter a beluga whale stranded on a treacherous tidal flat. Beneath their feet, the cool, wet silt is “raw batter shaken inside a pan.” The whale’s exposed white flesh is “soft, like a ripe peach,” and its extended forehead and mouth shape “a pained smile—as though we’d asked, ‘Shouldn’t you be in the water?’” There’s a slow drip of delicious, tactile detail that not only establishes a rich scene but reveals clues about Gavin’s inner state.
Full disclosure: I went to college with Chia-Chia Lin, so after I emerged from The Unpassing’s spell, I caught up with her and asked, among other things, how she channeled the experience of a child.
Lin, who grew up in a family of Taiwanese immigrants in various cities on the East Coast, first visited Alaska nearly 15 years ago for an internship at the attorney general’s office in Anchorage. In a dying Subaru, she spent weekends exploring the Chugach Mountains and beyond. She says she found herself wide-eyed. “Children experience the world so dramatically and fully. They’re really in touch with their senses. As an outsider, I experienced Alaska at a different, heightened level, the way a child would,” she told me. “Insiders have more access to knowledge, but outsiders in a place have access to their reactions—to newness.”
The allure of the wilderness in The Unpassing is not only in its newness, though. It’s also that it’s unknowable, a source of irreducible mystery. Lin said that while writing the novel, she drew inspiration in some small but meaningful way from a news story about a Japanese boy who’d gone missing in the woods. “He was too young to explain what had happened to him in the few days he’d spent alone. But even when you’re an adult, it’s hard to describe what happens to you in the woods—how they change you.” As she was telling me this, I couldn’t help but think of the moment in the book when Gavin reflects on his wild backyard with a sort of naive wisdom: “The truth was, we didn’t know the woods at all. We only knew the path. Once you stepped off it, there was no telling what you’d find.”
It’s worth noting that for all the natural threats that loom for Gavin and his family—like man-swallowing mudflats, tree-thrashing moose, and bears descending from the Chugach Mountains—at its core, the novel doesn’t lean too hard on timeworn ideas of the wilderness as a proving ground of one’s prowess or will to survive. Lin laughs recalling that she forbade her publisher from putting a bear on the book’s cover.
At its core, the novel doesn’t lean too hard on timeworn ideas of the wilderness as a proving ground of one’s prowess or will to survive.
What’s more menacing—and moving—in The Unpassing is the way the wilderness creeps into house and home, and the way it leads characters astray from one another. First, tiny fungi sprout in the dank bathroom. Later, squirrels take up in the attic, and rain leaks through the ceiling. As the novel builds toward a scene of harrowing dysfunction and confrontation, the wilderness comes to reflect the unforgiving emotional terrain that family members are trying to navigate—and are not guaranteed to emerge from. (Lin says, “There’s nowhere as wild as our families.”)
To be fair, it’s not all bleak in the cul-de-sac on the edge of the woods. In moments when the kids snuggle in bed, sharing an illicit candy bar, or when curious, caring neighbors reach out, there is warmth and optimism, rendered with the kind of understatement that reverberates. There are funny moments, too, usually involving Gavin’s tenacious, unfiltered mother (when we meet her, she’s playing dead to test her children’s reactions).
At its heart, The Unpassing is about newcomers striving in the margins between civilization and the forest for a basic sense of security that others have long taken for granted. It’s a kind of modern pioneer story, stripped of sentimentality but pulsating with both love and dread for the wilderness.