In January of 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The disaster was viewed in real time by many, including children, as classrooms across the United States watched the takeoff to celebrate Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was meant to be the first civilian to leave our atmosphere. There was widespread public mourning, with President Ronald Reagan delaying his State of the Union address by a week. In Chia-Chia Lin’s debut novel, “The Unpassing,” another tragedy occurs in the wake of this calamity: In the nearly sunless Alaskan winter, a little girl named Ruby dies, a death that reverberates across her Taiwanese immigrant family’s landscape with more force than any national disaster could.
“The Unpassing” begins with a discordant scene that sears itself on the mind of the narrator, Ruby’s brother Gavin: His mother walks into a room bearing a plate of grapes and collapses. She doesn’t move, and Gavin and his sister Pei-Pei freeze too, in terror, confusion or shock. In hindsight, at least, it is a moment of understanding: “Things ended. You couldn’t stop things from ending.” Yet it proves to be a false ending. Their mother opens her eyes and gets up, announcing that she was testing them, and they failed: They didn’t call for help. The lesson Gavin learns from this is not so much what to do in a crisis, but that a tragedy can be reversed. Yet when Gavin contracts meningitis early in the book and Ruby catches it - when he recovers and she dies - there is no undoing it.
The novel is full of parallel moments like this. Gavin narrates from adulthood, looking back at a tumultuous childhood, and while his language is that of an adult, Lin is careful to keep his grown-up interpretations largely absent. Instead, Lin uses the associative quality of his memories to point readers toward an understanding of moments that could otherwise seem unlinked or confusing. One example is the preoccupation with the Challenger, its recurrence apparently random, except that it isn’t at all. When the Rogers Commission Report comes out, Pei-Pei sits with her father and reads the published excerpts: “Slowly they pieced together the demise of the shuttle: two rubber seals had become brittle during the cold-weather launch. Hot gases leaked through the seals onto a tank full of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Boom.” Two pages later, Gavin learns that a lawsuit against his father, which has been looming over the family, is due to a similar oversight: “Something broke in one of the wells he built,” [Pei-Pei] said. “Stuff got into the water. Stuff that poisoned it - the family’s drinking water.” She may as well have added: boom. After all, though their father pleads innocence and competence, the suit is part of what explodes the family.
Grief takes many forms, but in Gavin’s family, it is secreted away like incriminating evidence, like his younger brother Natty’s hidden stash of squirrel tails left behind by some hungry but picky predator. Just as Natty - whose behavior becomes alarming to Gavin after Ruby’s death - shows his collection to Gavin without quite understanding its disturbing nature, so too the family’s grief is made visible, though unacknowledged, through chaotic actions, decisions made in desperation and pained outbursts. As the novel unfolds and the days grow longer, they struggle to communicate, orbiting around one another, never quite spelling out their fears and sadness. Gavin’s mother worries endlessly about germs in the months after Ruby’s death, while her husband puts together a list of “Rules for Long Living,” which Gavin explains are “a list of actions we had to do every day, compiled from his readings on longevity. Chew each bite at least ten times. Flap the arms upon waking to get the energy flowing right. Eat five dried jujubes.” But the parents hardly ever talk about Ruby’s death with their children, so Gavin and his siblings don’t mention it either.
This is partially due to anger, blame and guilt festering between the parents, not only about Ruby, but also about the difficulties of being immigrants living in a drastically different climate from the one they grew up in, in a country where an engineer from Taiwan isn’t easily hired, in a state that is majority white, during a time when casual racism is cheerfully bandied about even by those who seem to mean well. The family’s financial situation is precarious; a bureaucratic misstep precluded them from receiving a payout from the Alaska Permanent Fund, and they’ve been fighting their way to make ends meet ever since. The looming possibility - and eventual reality - of teetering over the edge is increased with the lawsuit against Gavin’s father, creating a sense of slow dread that permeates the book.
Lin’s attention to detail is startling, and though she keeps close to Gavin’s childhood experience, she also allows us to read between the lines and intuit the depth of the family’s grief, financial straits and fear of belittlement from their white neighbors and colleagues. Anyone who has ever grieved - be it the loss of a person, home, country or security - will feel a sense of recognition. “The Unpassing” is a remarkable, unflinching debut.