In This Debut Novel, a Chinese Immigrant Keeps His Sleepwalking Sister’s Secrets

NIGHTS WHEN NOTHING HAPPENED
By Simon Han

How does a family find its footing after it leaves home for good? For the Chengs, who have immigrated from China, their new life in Plano, Texas, is rendered in a series of quick brush strokes, as if in a Raymond Carver story. Houses on either side of their street stand “like tombs.” A square patch of lawn is filled with “fresh, breathing sod.” Ordinary details of suburban America conjure the past. When Jack, the family’s elder son, smells the perfume of the other 11-year-olds in his class, the sweet scent reminds him of the candied fruits — glazed strawberries, pineapple, shanzha — he used to buy from street vendors in Tianjin, sliding the sticky flesh off the skewers with his teeth. Conversely, a neighbor’s swimming pool at night signals murder and intrigue to Jack — an impression perhaps made more from news stories and television shows than from any kind of lived experience.

It’s the mid-aughts and the Cheng family has chosen to live in Plano for the good schools, the low crime rate, the shopping malls and the lighted tennis courts. Never mind that the city was named the “suicide capital” of America in the ’80s and suffered from a heroin epidemic in the ’90s. Patty, Jack’s mother, works for a tech company near Dallas. Her husband, Liang, runs a portrait photography studio. They moved to the United States when Jack was little, leaving him behind in Tianjin with Patty’s parents, and finally sent for him when he was 5. Jack’s younger sister, Annabel, was born in Texas. Jack feels an instinctual need to protect Annabel, in part because of her sleepwalking; though she is too afraid to sleep by herself, by night her unconscious self ventures boldly out of the house, discarding her slippers on other people’s lawns. On these nights, Jack is the one who wakes up to search for her and return her to safety, never revealing this secret to his parents.

As with many families, happiness is not really a reliable state for the Chengs, even if they do have security, Christmas presents and food on the table. Seen from the shifting perspectives of mother, father, daughter and son — each fully, empathetically rendered — their life in Plano feels more makeshift, like a tedious kind of limbo. Patty waits for hours in Dallas traffic every day. They slowly upgrade from a smaller house to a slightly bigger one. Liang gets too drunk at his poker games with the other Chinese fathers in the neighborhood. Patty works late to avoid going home. There is little communication in the Cheng household — thoughts remain unspoken, and important questions are never asked. This novel reminds us what it’s like navigating a foreign country: Connections feel frayed, self-doubt proliferates, the immigrant is never sure what is normal and what isn’t. Jack’s own reassurances seem halfhearted: “You have to walk through a place as if you’ve known it all your life,” he tells himself.

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