Book Review: 'The Border of Paradise' By Esme Weijun WangEsme Weijun Wang's novel — packed with family secrets, betrayals, a decaying house and a dramatic fire — could have seemed pulpy in lesser hands. But her restrained, beautiful prose makes it work.
The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang opens with an imminent suicide. It's one that Jia-Hui, wife of the man who is about to die, has been attempting to stave off for years. "With David," she says later, "I learned that suicide was an utterly uncontrollable act disguised as the most controllable death possible."
The son of a wealthy piano manufacturer, David has been neurotic and tormented since childhood; the traits crystallizing with age. He befriends and then falls in love with Marianne — sister of his friend Marty and daughter of another family in his Polish-American community in Brooklyn — but they are torn apart when her parents, who find David an unsavory match for their child, warn him off and move to Chicago. In his grief, he connects with Marty, who has joined the military, and eventually lands in Kaoshiung, Taiwan.
It is here that David meets Jia-Hui, a street-smart woman who recruits girls to work at her mother's brothel. They marry after a strange and sudden courtship, and Jia-Hui, called Daisy by her husband, goes with him back to the United States. This renaming is the first of many insults, evidence of David's inability to untangle his relationships from his soft racism and narcissistic, toxic paternalism. "She was exotic to me," he says, "and that was the primary pleasure I derived from her, I confess." Soon after their marriage, their son William is born in a hotel in San Francisco, and the couple moves to an isolated patch of land in rural California.
But a few years into this arrangement, David rediscovers Marianne, who lives as a nun in a nearby convent. He visits her, inflames old passions, and gets her pregnant. She gives birth to a daughter named Gillian and relinquishes the infant to Jia-Hui and David. Shunning even the residents of the tiny mountain town they live near, the couple raises William and Gillian to adolescence with very little human contact outside of the family, and with no knowledge about the world beyond the house's books and their parents' perspectives.
After David's suicide — "His sickness betrayed us, and then be betrayed us," William says — all three residents of this sequestered kingdom nurse personal pain and struggle to create (or maintain) a self in the deluge of isolation. It is amidst these turbulent conditions that Jia-Hui enacts her own version of tong yang xi — an old-fashioned Chinese tradition of families adopting poor girls so that they may be raised alongside their sons and eventually married to them — between the two teenagers. William embraces their way of living, but Gillian slowly rejects it, tumbling into larger and stranger circumstances in an attempt to flee the only existence she's ever known.
Paradise swings and rotates between several sets of points of view: David and Jia-Hui, William and Gillian, and Marianne and Marty. The switches between them are dazzling in a subtle, unassuming way: unfolding layers of secrets with almost unbearable casualness. But it is the women's voices — first Jia-Hui, then Gillian, then Marianne — that are the novel's lodestones. Their perspectives glow fever-bright as they struggle to assert control over their identities and their lives in any way they can — with heartbreaking, devastating results.
The gothic setpieces — the incestuous sibling relationship, the isolated, decaying house, a rapacious forest fire, and several other dramatic scenes whose contents I won't mention here, for fear of spoiling their arrival — would have been overly dramatic, possibly even ludicrous, in the hands of a less capable writer. Indeed, I imagine some readers might find themselves thinking of V.C. Andrews' pulpy, ridiculous Flowers in the Attic when faced with these plot points. But this is a cosmetic comparison. Wang's prose is beautiful and restrained, and her generous, precise characterization makes every perspective feel organic and utterly real in the face of increasingly theatrical circumstances. The result — the story of an American family stretched and manipulated into impossible shapes — is an extraordinary literary and gothic novel of the highest order.
Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.