In Lin’s challenging debut, set in rural 1986 Alaska, a Taiwanese-American family struggles to cope with the loss of their youngest member. A week after the Challenger
explodes, 10-year-old Gavin wakes up from a meningitis-induced coma, only to realize that his younger sister, Ruby, didn’t survive the illness. In the months that follow, the family slowly disintegrates. When not fighting with her husband, Gavin’s mother talks incessantly about taking their remaining three children and moving back to Taiwan. Gavin’s father, a water well driller, becomes despondent and erratic, staring into space or sawing holes in the ceiling to squelch a flying squirrel infestation. When he’s sued by a white family whose child became severely ill from an improperly installed water well, the ill-equipped and penniless parents run from the situation. They take the children and go on a “vacation” in the Alaskan boonies, forcing Gavin, his five-year-old brother, Natty, and their older sister, Pei-Pei, to sleep in the truck with the rest of their scavenged belongings. Upon their return to the repossessed house, the family squats in the eerie, empty shell as winter sets in—that is, until yet another catastrophe shatters the little they have left. The unrelenting bleakness of the novel might be too much for some readers, but Lin’s talent for vivid, laser-sharp prose—especially when describing Alaska’s stark beauty or the family’s eccentric temperament—is undeniable. (May) Correction: this review incorrectly stated a character had died.