Alex Madison | Longreads | May 2019 | 13 minutes (3,462 words)
In the opening pages of Chia-Chia Lin’s gorgeous debut novel, The Unpassing, ten-year-old Gavin lays in the grass with his father, searching for meteors in an autumn sky. His father claims to see them, but Gavin is doubtful: “Either my eyes were not fast enough, or he willed those fragments of space debris into being. They flamed with the intensity of his wanting.”
We learn Gavin’s family has followed this flame of wanting from Taiwan to the U.S. and eventually all the way to Anchorage, where Gavin’s father feels “closer to the stars.” It’s 1986, and Gavin and his three siblings — Pei Pei, Natty and Ruby — eagerly anticipate the launch of the Challenger shuttle, hungrily gathering details about civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe. Their world hums with yearning and potential. But before the first chapter ends, Gavin contracts meningitis and slips into a coma, only to awaken in a new world: a world in which the Challenger has exploded, and four-year-old Ruby has caught his illness and died. What follows is the unspooling of a new, lonelier life for each family member.
While Ruby’s death charges each of the novel’s movements, my experience of reading was filled with more wonder than sadness. Even as calamity shortens their childhoods, Gavin and his siblings remain vibrant. Their sorrow can’t erase the marvels of never-ending summer light or the joys of tromping among mysterious fauna with new friends. Grief also holds its own wretched beauty — peeling away surfaces and exposing raw feeling. The aura of grief hovers at the edges of Gavin’s experiences, but his observations are also threaded with strangeness and humor.
Chia-Chia Lin is heartbreakingly attuned to the nuance and depth of the children’s perspectives, and Gavin’s narration reflects an acute sensitivity to his family’s emotional weather. Her prose is unadorned but luminous, distilled to potent precision: “two punch holes” of Natty’s pupils in the night, “shredded clouds” announcing summer, a baseball cap that “sliced and resliced a line in the air.” Read more…