One of the epigraphs in Simon Han’s debut novel Nights When Nothing Happened is a line from “Epistle,” a Li-Young Lee poem: “Before it all gets wiped away, let me say, there is wisdom in the slender hour which arrives between two shadows.” Nights When Nothing Happened is very much about the private, shadowy parts of ordinary lives, but Han’s evocative writing is anything but ordinary.
The novel stars the Chengs, an immigrant family from Tianjin, China, living in the affluent suburb of Plano, Texas in 2003. Five-year-old Annabel sleepwalks, and the rest of the family structures their lives around keeping her safe. The early chapters alternate between the perspectives of her bookish older brother Jack, her mother Patty, Annabel, and finally, her father Liang. Patty works at a microchip company and assimilates easily into American life, while Liang, who runs a photography studio, struggles with English and his own night terrors from childhood trauma.
Eleven-year-old Jack rarely gets a full night’s sleep, diligently standing watch to protect his sister during her sleepwalking episodes. Unlike Annabel, he was born in Tianjin and raised in early childhood by his grandparents. To Jack, Plano is a violent, frightening place, the former heroin and suicide capital of America where schools have regular active shooter drills and bomb threats — a stark contrast to his childhood in Tianjin, where he felt free to be mischievous. The family’s sleeplessness is a metaphor for their experience of the American Dream; their immigrant existence is a constant, surreal state of semi-consciousness, a low-grade nightmare they can’t wake up from.
I often found himself holding my breath in anticipation of Han’s lyrical descriptions of mundane activities such as sitting in traffic or playing poker. Of nature, Jack thinks: “. . . maybe the heartbeat he was feeling did not belong to him but to the grass, and to the earthworms slithering beneath.” Of Liang’s childhood in China: “Before Liang Cheng became a father, he had been, briefly, a son . . . During summers, the plum rains pulled down the sky. They fell in drops so big he could dodge them.” Of the American neighbors he plays poker with: “These men had bodies like storm-battered palm trees. They were wobbly men who made sturdy moves in the game, only to go home and become wobbly all over again, snoring into their wives’ turned backs, waking up their children for hugs they did not wish to give.”
When Liang is wrongly accused of a crime by his neighbors, a misunderstanding that he doesn’t have the English proficiency to refute, it’s the closest thing to something happening in the book. The accusation’s aftermath fractures Patty and Liang’s already fragile marriage, and it’s up to the children to put the family back together again.
Like many books about Chinese American immigrants, the most compelling moments come from the characters’ pasts. Particularly poignant is the story of Liang’s mother, who dies in an accidental fall shortly after giving birth to her son. “Your mother lives on the moon,” Liang’s father tells him, giving Liang’s childhood trauma the feel of magical realism. Also quite moving is Patty’s flashback to her initial romance with Liang, one that the couple struggles to rekindle under the pressures of raising a family in a new country where Patty feels much more at home than her husband. Of her role as his translator, Patty observes: “At night, she became his harness and his witness, the one to tell him what had happened, and who he had been when it happened.”
Though Han’s intent was clearly to keep this novel quiet, I did wish that so much of the drama wasn’t left to the imagination. The story glosses over Liang’s interactions with law enforcement after he’s accused, as well as Patty and Liang’s painful decision to separate. After the pivotal accusation, I expected the plot to come to a boil, but instead it returned to a simmer – and stayed there.
Nights When Nothing Happened is a brief novel best read slowly, so one can savor the resonance and originality Han wrings from the quotidian. Readers should expect an experience more like watching a Wong Kar-wai film than a Kathryn Bigelow one; Han’s gift at zeroing in on matters of the conflicted heart is its own reward.
Leland Cheuk is the author of 3 books, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian.