In the 1950s, David Nowak, a neurotic Polish American heir to a piano fortune, marries Jia-Hui Chen, a young woman from Taiwan with nerves of steel, and moves with her to remote northern California. Their relationship is volatile, but its legacy for their children will be much worse. The Border of Paradise is an astonishing historical novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read before, in the best possible way. If you love creepy thrillers like The Vegetarian by Han Kang or intimate portraits of trauma like History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund–or if, like me, you love both of those things–then this novel is a must-read. I deeply enjoyed The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction essay collection, earlier this year. I’m pleased to say I like her fiction just as much.
Content note: Suicide and self harm are central to The Border of Paradise. If those things are triggers for you, then you should consider carefully before reading the rest of this review (or the book itself).
You can read my full review below.
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
- publisher: Unnamed Press
- publication date: 2016
- length: 292 pages
I’ve never known a man who has taken his own life, and so I’ve never read a suicide letter, seeing as how the final words of such uncelebrated and self-condemned souls are so privately guarded. Still, I can’t help but think such letters all must be the same, because what else can be said but, over and over again, Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry, in the way that someone newly smitten can only say I love you, I love you, I love you…
–from The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang
In The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in long paragraphs that still feel light and airy, like a dense pastry that fluffs up in the oven. That’s a good thing, because the subject matter of this novel is almost unbearably heavy.
David Nowak, a teenage boy in 1940s-1950s New York, is a brilliant student and heir to a piano factory and accompanying fortune, but he can’t stop strange new neuroses from creeping in. He becomes unable to select clothes and dress himself. When he looks in the mirror, his body is impossibly distorted. He becomes hysterically attached to stuffed animals.
He knows something is wrong, but not what. The word schizophrenia is, to my memory, never used in The Border of Paradise, but we the readers can fill in the blanks.
David’s instability culminates in him being forcibly separated from his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, by her father, who is sneeringly cruel about David’s condition. Heartbroken, David cashes out the family fortune and leaves for Taiwan, where he marries a young woman named Jia-Hui, whom he renames Daisy.
Everyone warns Jia-Hui against David’s moods and volatility, but Jia-Hui has instabilities of her own–ones that have horrifying consequences for the couple’s two children.
I wouldn’t call The Border of Paradise horror, but it is horrifying. There is ample gore, disturbing sex, and piercing descriptions of what it’s like to live with untreated mental illness.
Of course, in the time period in which The Border of Paradise is set, there wasn’t really such a thing as treated mental illness. Wang uses this historical setting in unusual ways. Instead of yoking the story to real world historical events or intricate period detail, she focuses on internal, insular experiences instead.
In one word, The Border of Paradise is about isolation: the absolute isolation of being an immigrant woman of color, or a mentally ill person, or an abused child in the 1950s-1970s, when there was little awareness of these issues in the general public and no internet communities to turn to, either.
This novel is emotionally dense and deeply introspective, but it’s also extremely readable. It’s peppered with plot bombshells, dramatic and cinematic without straining belief. (I do wonder if Wang is trying to say something about the nature of delusion and hallucination here–how real life really can be stranger than the fictions our own brains can tell us.)
I raced to get to the end, using it as motivation to hop on the treadmill at the end of each day, knowing it would absorb me enough to make my workout fly by.
Specific and intense, The Border of Paradise is like a fever dream if your feverish brain were a top notch novelist. This novel is a gift. ★★★★★
Reviews and books you might also enjoy:
- The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang
- History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
I purchased my own copy of The Border of Paradise and was in no way compensated for this review.
*Programming note: Book reviews will appear every Tuesday and Thursday going forward. I look forward to being back on a regular posting schedule!