Bury What We Cannot Take, the latest novel from author Kirstin Chen set in Mao’s China, is a doozy. After 12-year-old Ah Liam reports his grandmother to the Communist Party, the family must flee their little island off the mainland. His mother applies for temporary exit visas to go to Hong Kong where his father lives. But she is told that she can either take Ah Liam or her daughter San San, leaving one behind as proof that they will return.
The impossible decision shakes the family and its members to their core. The novel spins it’s way around this single moment. I had thought this might be the kind of book that spans decades, traversing all the way into some distant future. Instead, it stays rather compact, unraveling in minute details each character’s thoughts, decisions, actions, and internal conflicts. Mother, father, grandmother, son, daughter. One displaced family grappling with this harsh reality and the truth–often ugly, sometimes beautiful–that it reveals in all of them.
At the novel’s heart are questions about the meaning of family–what is real, what is artificial, is family fragile or unbreakable. Bury What We Cannot Take is compellingly written, a fast and entrancing read, but also definitely an emotional doozy.