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.
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.
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
Building Your Bookshelf
Florida by Lauren Groff
Groff has yet to publish a work that receives minimal praise and Florida, her brand-new short story collection, is no exception. Each of the eleven stories anchors itself to the state of Florida, even those told from international settings. The humid atmosphere of the Everglades clings to vacationers in France and Brazil, causing the state to feel less like a fixed place than like a part of one’s genetic code. While the tales and characters linger long after they end, it’s Groff’s sentences that leave the most lasting impression. Spare and rugged, she wastes not a single word as she shares her spellbinding imagination. Already shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, Florida is one of the most unique collections out there and will surely add to what is already an illustrious literary career.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
After a processing error leaves her Turkish husband without the legal right to reenter the U.S., Daphne has become an involuntary single mother. Caring for her little girl, Honey, and vying for her husband’s return she finds herself increasingly buried under the weight of life. So she leaves behind her job and cramped apartment in San Francisco and heads north to the desert of Altavista and a mobile home remnant of her family where she hopes to find some calm. Through chance encounters with neighbors and townsfolk, Kiesling conjures a sharp narrative on class, local politics, and the terrifying joy that is motherhood.
Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner
With Halloween nearly upon us, here’s a pick for the darker side of life. Saturday nights are no longer safe along Interstate 35 in south Texas. Women begin to disappear, abducted from their homes, cars, and movie theaters only to turn up later displayed in graphic arrangements of murder. Caitlin Hendrix, a recent addition to the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI takes the case and begins the hunt for what appears to be a serial killer in the Lone Star State. Harnessing her skills as a profiler, Hendrix works to get inside the head of a gruesome criminal who views women as his personal play things. Into the Black Nowhere is the second installment in Gardiner’s UNSUB series (the first book being equally thrilling) and a promising continuation of Hendrix’s legacy. But grab it quick because Saturday is coming.
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