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The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 7, 2019

Childhood shapes adulthood in this story of a transplanted family. Torn from his homeland, the young protagonist feels like he does not belong, a condition that will shape his entire life.

In the 1970s, Gavin’s family moved from Taiwan to Minnesota to Alaska, where his father (a former wastewater engineer) drills wells and does some plumbing to make ends meet. The story begins in 1986, near the time of the Challenger disaster, when Gavin comes out of a coma. His youngest sister has died from a meningitis infection that Gavin brought home from school. Gavin feels guilty for surviving.

Gavin’s father is a dreamer; his mother a pragmatist. Gavin’s parents often quarrel over the father’s apparent inability to accept that he will never work as an engineer in his new country, its reputation as a land of opportunity notwithstanding. Their marriage is further strained by a lawsuit accusing the father of causing a child’s death because of a defect in a well he constructed.

Gavin’s brother Natty is slow but artistic. His sister Pei-Pei is getting it on with a neighbor boy. Gavin is too young to get it on with his friend Ada and too shy to explore his budding feelings about the opposite sex. Ada’s brother bullies him, the universal experience of childhood.

The story follows family turmoil from Gavin’s sixth grade perspective. He mistakes an eviction for a vacation, wonders why his father so rarely works, doesn’t quite understand the concept of lawsuits, frets when Natty wanders into the woods, feels distress when his mother bickers with his father, and lives with the guilt of his sister’s death. His unease persists regardless of his circumstances, a condition that will afflict his entire life.

Gavin tells the story in a quiet, subdued voice that reflects his barely controlled fear of events that are beyond his control. Gavin’s language is simple, befitting a child of his age, but Chia-Chia Lin arranges his simple words into elegant sentences. The final chapter is written from Gavin’s adult perspective as he returns to Alaska and Taiwan. He apparently hopes to give context to his present by searching for roots that never took hold. This snapshot of formative moments in a child’s life makes a persuasive case that however well an adult might learn to cope with traumatic events of childhood, their impact on personality is profound and permanent.


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