There is progress being made in my goal this year and I am very, very proud. Granted, I am very envious of everyone who manages to smash in seven books in a single month but I’m just not that good. It’s okay though. I know who I am in the world and though I am an avid reader, I am not a fast reader. For anyone who follows my updates on Goodreads, I’d be lucky to finish a book in less than four weeks. Which, this time I did. The Border of Paradise was a delight, an experience, and a roller coaster of good, bad, depressing, and even sensual emotions from start to finish.
In April, I pre-ordered a book for the very first time in my entire life. It’s not that I don’t do it on purpose, but I never catch a book before its release into the world. More than anything, I find a book after months or even years after its existence. The book is by a woman who I adore to bits and crumbs, Esme Weijun Wang. I stumbled upon her blog years ago, maybe from a certain essay she wrote about something close to me but I know that I stayed around for years to come (and as a budding editor, I wanted to pick her brain from a safe distance on how she made her business work). So imagine my excitement when she announced a novel, her debut novel that I can hold and own and say that I knew of her the years prior and read her blog and even joined her Facebook group for the Encouragement Notes and spoke with her in comments a time or two. She even read my blog post on my more personal blog and commended me on my writing and raw emotions. Ultimate fan goals, right? Yasss! And that excitement stayed with me until the very last page and even informed her about my rather authentic reaction to being finished with it on Twitter. I hated to look like that annoying admirer but as a writer, I knew she would enjoy it even if I did need alone time after finishing.
Following the story of Polish-American David Nowak, we see the unfolding of his life from childhood, adulthood, marriage to his Taiwanese wife, Daisy, the birth of his two children William and Gillian, and inevitably his suicide. In the midst of his mind slipping from him, he has an affair with a childhood sweetheart, Marianne, and has a child by her. But the story is more than his affair. Honestly, it’s more than just about him. It’s a story about his wife. It’s about his daughter raised by his wife, who isn’t her mother, and his son having to cope with the lost of their father and having only their mother in their small sheltered world. It’s about his family watching the man they loved and feared slipping away from them each and every moment. It’s more of a story about what happens to this family after they lose him. It’s about the last remaining Nowaks and all the crazy shit they go from then on.
I refuse to spoil it at all.
I can’t give away the beauty of this story because it has to be felt. It’s not something that can be summarized. It’s definitely not something that should be ruined because it begs to be felt, to be heard, to be told from these pages because I’m telling you, I can’t stop thinking about the writing let alone the characters trapped inside the pages.
Beginning with the writing, the tone that is set before you is mystical. It’s a Gothic tale, with something of a grim undertone to each scene that ultimately makes you feel uneasy but wanting to devour more and even more. Gothic always makes me feel sticky, such as hot humidity, and this book made me want to shower after every single read. I felt inside of it, watching from the corner of the living room as this family unfolded into their dysfunction. Each chapter was written to where I could easily empathize with the character and almost defend their way of thinking or even their actions because it was easy to be engrossed by them. The descriptions were tantalizing, and more than enough to made me feel, as I said, like I was standing in their space. It felt raw, my skin clammy from nervous sweats and even a small bout of anxiety from needing answers. Honestly, there were sections that took their time which left me feeling like I wish something would happen. But, in hindsight, the feeling didn’t last long. Once the feeling came, though,believe quickly shoved away by something, whether it be intriguing, shocking, or telling.
Each character has a trait you love and hate. They have many you hate and many you love, really. They’re human is the problem, and that’s what made me so overly attached. David, for example, was more like me than I knew how to deal with. His mental deterioration begins with neuroses resulting in a desire to stop wanting to attend church and a case of OCD that he slowly mends with time. When I was younger, in high school, I suffered all the same things. It wasn’t church that I stopped wanting to attend but just a strong desire to want to disassociate myself with the world. I believe in some ways that we all have had an experience like this, and you feel for him deeply. You worry about him early on as you do when more is revealed of his mind deteriorating, when the schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder takes over and he begins to lose touch with himself. You want him to be better, and truthfully, that’s what we all do with mental illnesses, we ache for them to be better and return to who they were before they were ‘sick’. The sad point with David is that, there was no him before he was ‘sick’. You know that his suicide is inescapable, almost tormenting him all his life, but you still have hope that he doesn’t do it. You want to believe in happy endings but that’s not how it works.
Then there came what I hated of him. I hated his inability to commit to something, to find himself in music or as a teacher. I hated that he didn’t really live in a way that one could have lived and instead he let it devour him whole. I hated him for not loving his wife as he should have. I hated him for what he put her and his children through, not only with his disease but with his suicide. I’ve suffered the same loss and anger is only natural. I believed in him and he let himself down, and in essence he let me down.
That same compassion went to his wife. Daisy came to America after having a rather affluent life in her own country. David is the one that fell in love with her, maybe truly in love with her or for what his mind assumed to be love, and with that he begged her to come to America. The entire transition resonates with you profoundly. Her passages include untranslated Chinese and Mandarin that made it so much harder to not see her as a character in a book but as an actual individual with a life of her own and a story of her own that started before I even pulled back the first page. Her adjustment to the American life is amazingly beautiful and equally tragic. She can’t let go of those things she knew of home, and she refuses to after a point. When she first meets David’s mother, there are some English words she does not know with is expressed through blanks where the word would be (“Would you like some ___?”). You begin to feel as much of an outsider as she does. You learn about her and you learn about how she is a culture that she refuses to let go. It continues on when she teaches their children Mandarin and cooks them meals.
I loved William and hated him much like I hated his father. I loved Gillian and hated her much like I hated her father. I loved Marianne and I didn’t hate her but I almost resented her for not staying with David when they were younger and saving everyone else of this trouble and pain.
The book is an experience. With each climax came a gasp and with each gasp was the need to want more. You want to devour this book not for its words but for the fact that even until the very last page, you have to have more. You ask yourself where do you go from here? Where are these people? What am I supposed to do with myself? I can say that for the three weeks of reading this book over food or right in the wake of night, I was addicted and forced myself to savor it. It required savoring.
I was and still am glad for this book. I’m grateful to have something so good happen to me at a time I was in need of something refreshing and new from the usual. I highly recommend it to everyone who loves a story that comes layered with so many themes and characters that are so real it hurts you to let go. Unfortunately, there isn’t a quote that I can highlight in this post like I do the others because truly every last piece is pure gold. And again, Esme is a wonderful woman and human being. This book, as a debut novel, let’s me know if and when another book comes from her that I won’t be let down by any means. I can’t congratulate her enough on something so wonderful and now I’m compelled to finally finish my own novella that I’ve had sitting on the shelf for months. Please do yourself a favor and buy this book in all it’s many forms you can.
Now, the summer is upon me and I’m whipping out all my YA books. It’s the only good thing I can do to follow this up. I’d say it’s a tradition for myself since pregnancy, YA books in the hot season to remind me of how my teenage years sucked terribly and relive my own terrible accounts through theirs. I’ve got Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl going good right now with hopefully It’s Kind of a Funny Story coming in right after. Remember that you can see all my bookish updates from my instagram and now my new booklr I’ve made dedicated to all things bookish, studying, art, and aesthetic.