Chia-Chia Lin’s Debut Novel Is Enthrallilng

‘The Unpassing’ explores the complicated lives of Taiwanese immigrants living in Anchorage through the voice of a 10-year-old boy.


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Photo by F. Yang

The sudden death of a child impacts each member of a family differently in Bay Area author Chia-Chia Lin’s gripping debut novel, The Unpassing. Cast into unpredictable, crisscrossing paths of grief, anger, incrimination, guilt, and denial, 10-year-old Gavin tells the story of his immigrant Taiwanese family’s struggles while living as virtual outcasts in Anchorage, Alaska. After he and exuberant, food-loving young Ruby contract meningitis, Ruby dies and Gavin survives. But he, his two remaining siblings, and their parents are tossed “like a kite in a storm” and sent reeling as if “carried by a greater force.” The family is further tested when the father, a plumber and repairman, is sued for allegedly installing a well  improperly, which has resulted in a young boy in the community becoming gravely ill.

Lin is a graduate of Harvard College and received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Zyzzyva, and other publications.

Lin doles out the family’s underlying layers of pain with a remarkable, steady hand for a young novelist. In sparse language that nevertheless captures the sweeping grandeur and raw brutality of Alaska’s landscape, the story’s pace is slow enough to make a reader want to plunge ahead and skip to the end to “find out what happens.” But the plot’s astutely constructed staircase of increasing tension and Lin’s equal ability to convey humor and pathos combine to command patience and appreciation of the prose itself. Most notable and enjoyable — in a story whose topic is grim — are the voices heard in the withering “wisdom” of Gavin’s older sister, Pei-Pei, and Gavin’s coming-of-age musings and realizations about his parents and their limitations.

Although set in 1986, it is not an afterthought to consider Unpassing a contemporary immigrant story. The complexity of societal perceptions, “otherness,” race, economic and gender bias, among other issues, are presented through the timeless lens of a traumatic death. Reaching into a reader’s heart and mind, Lin invades, invokes compassion, allows for self-reflection and invites a reader to walk away changed, or not. Either way, it’s an impressive debut and good reason to hope Lin is already working on book two.

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2019, 288 pages, $26)

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Editor's note: This article has been modified to correct two errors. 

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