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The Choice Between Family and Country

A review of the September selection for StoriedBury What We Cannot Take

Published on:
October 15, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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Set in Maoist China in the 1950s, Bury What We Cannot Take charts the course of the Ong family and their attempts to survive the political oppression of the time. The drama of the story ignites early when twelve-year-old Ah Liam happens upon his grandmother moments after she smashes a picture of Chairman Mao in their bourgeoise home. Instinctively, he and his younger sister, San San, concoct a hastily constructed alibi to maintain their ignorance of the act, even without fully understanding its implications.

On its surface, one might expect a drama-thriller from such a plot, and while those elements are present Chen has crafted a novel primarily about what it takes to be a family.

The children live in a matriarchal household led by their grandmother and mother, Seok Koon, on Drum Wave Islet, a small island a short ferry ride from mainland China. For some time their father, Ah Zhai, has lived in Hong Kong where he operates his business and courts his mistress out from under the watchful gaze of Communism. Yet as the Maoist regime grows increasingly hostile to capitalism and Western sympathies, he and Seok Koon set into a motion a plan for his family’s escape that will test their devotion to country as well as one another.

On its surface, one might expect a drama-thriller from such a plot, and while those elements are present Chen has crafted a novel primarily about what it takes to be a family. The day after witnessing his grandmother’s treason, one of Ah Liam’s school teachers encourages him to apply for the Communist Youth League. Enamored by the opportunity, he decides not only to fill out an application, but also to turn in his grandmother as a gesture of devotion to the Party. Doing so places his family under scrutiny jeopardizing their chances of escaping to Hong Kong.

Ah Liam’s actions are one of many examples in which the Ongs are forced to choose between family and country thanks to the oppressive political climate. Chen writes with a tenderness for her characters as well as a thorough knowledge of the environment of that time. Rather than excoriate Communism directly, she demonstrates its effects through the perspectives of the Ongs. The novel shifts between characters, but primarily centers on the survival efforts of Seok Koon and San San. The combined outlooks of adult and child allow Chen to create some poignant illustrations of political oppression.

But Communism is not the only topic on the table. Bury What We Cannot Take has much to offer to the broader discussion of cruel political systems, some of it finding clear parallels in contemporary headlines. At a later point in the novel, Seok Koon attempts to procure visas for her family’s escape to Hong Kong. In the process, she is told she must leave behind one of her children to prove her commitment to the Party and guarantee her eventual return—a gut-wrenching decision no parent should have to face.

Bury What We Cannot Take has much to offer to the broader discussion of cruel political systems

Here, Chen’s novel resonates most by providing readers with absorbing context for terms like “border control,” “detention facilities,” and “family separation.” She carefully navigates the horrors faced by a child left to fend for themselves by a government enamored with consolidating its power more than caring for its people. The trauma is interior, but evident—a collection of hairline fractures rather than the obvious effect of a clean break. This is made most manifest in the way Chen chooses to end her book.

For many, such circumstances do not exist in the realm of fiction and we need stories like this to remind us to accompany our posture toward global and national policies with compassion. The choice between family and country should always be a false dichotomy. When it’s not, something has gone terribly awry.

With Bury What We Cannot Take, Chen has written an elegant and sobering second novel. Her commitment to thorough historical research and patient detail to her characters has resulted in a novel as enjoyable as it is sobering.

Windows Into Other Minds

Be sure to check out the author's Q&A with us at Fathom!

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Collin Huber
Collin Huber is a senior editor at Fathom and a professional writer and content editor in Dallas, Texas. He earned his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and spent his undergraduate years studying Government at the University of Texas at Austin. You can find him on Twitter @JCollinHuber.

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