Book Review: THE BORDER OF PARADISE by Esmé Weijun Wang

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 Cover
cover description: An illustration of a sickly-looking person in a field of grass being held up by ghostly hands.

The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • 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:


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!

My favorite books of 2019 so far

I’ve been making pretty abysmal progress on my reading goals this year: I’ve only read 19 books so far in 2019. (According to Goodreads, that’s 32 books behind schedule if I want to hit my goal of 100 books–but who’s counting?)

Luckily, the books I have read have been almost universally wonderful. I thought I’d highlight my very favorites so far. I’m counting any book I read and reviewed for the blog in 2019, no matter when it actually came out. I’ve ordered them chronologically based on when I read them, not based on how much I loved them. (I’m planning to do a year-end list this year, so I’m pushing that herculean task of ranking off till December.)

Here are my favorite books of 2019 so far! Clicking on the title links will open my original review of the book in a new tab.

sadie cover
cover description: A mostly black-and-white sketch of a girl, except for her bright red hoodie. The girl’s face is obscured.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

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If you’re tired of crime stories (both true and fictional) that are more interested in lurid details and beautiful victims than they are in real justice or the unvarnished truth, then the YA novel Sadie is for you. Courtney Summers blends “transcripts” of a Serial-style fictional investigative podcast with a first person narrative from the perspective of Sadie, a teen girl out for revenge against the man who murdered her younger sister.

Honestly, I tear up just thinking about this book. I sometimes feel so helpless in a world that treats women as disposable objects. Sadie tells me I’m not wrong to feel that way, but it also pushed me to remember my own strength, grit, and skills as a survivor.

This novel will empower you as much as it breaks your heart, no matter your age. It has one of the best endings I have ever read. I promise you: if you read Sadie, you’ll never forget her.

whitedancingelephantscover
cover description: An out-of-focus close-up of a South Asian woman’s face.

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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White Dancing Elephants is Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s first book, but it reads like the confident output of short fiction writers as respected and established as Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. These stories are sometimes devastating and difficult, sometimes effervescent and hopeful. They are always good.

One story in the collection that hasn’t left my mind since I read it is “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” about a little girl on the day of the Bhopal industrial disaster that killed and injured thousands. The story is emblematic of how Bhuvaneswar isn’t just content to tell stories that entertain us or provoke thought. This is agitating fiction. You won’t feel like sitting still after reading it.

“Diverse” has become a borderline-meaningless buzzword in publishing (most often used as a euphemism for “not white”), but White Dancing Elephants is truly diverse: diverse in its characters, settings, styles, goals, and forms. It is an explosion of talent and skill. What a gift.

The Collected Schizophrenias Cover
cover description: Styled to look like a composition notebook with a colorful marbled pattern.

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

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Of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that cut deepest on a personal level. I was diagnosed with bipolar I with psychotic tendencies seven years ago. That’s a different diagnosis than Esmé Weijun Wang’s schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), but I hung on every word of this essay collection anyway.

Wang’s essay-length examinations of what it means to lose your mind when, as a writer, you make your entire living off your mind, are as surprisingly hopeful as they are grief-stricken. Wang’s style is understated with secret sharp edges, almost scientific. These are field notes. It is a privilege that Wang lets us read them.

Books do save your life; it’s been a long time since my mental illness has sent me fully spinning off my axis, but if it ever does again, The Collected Schizophrenias will be the first life raft I turn to.

The Proposal Cover
cover description: Bright blue, with illustrations of a Black woman wearing sunglasses and a Latino man in a blue ballcap. There are also cute illustrations of a baseball, taco, palm trees, a cupcake, and the sun.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

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Right when you need a good book most, The Proposal will be there for you, like the cupcake or tasty taco you treat yourself to on a bad day. This is the Room of Requirement of books. It’s a romance between two people who think they don’t need romance; if you also think you don’t need romance, it will be happy to show you why you’re wrong.

Nik just survived a catastrophically bad Jumbotron proposal from her crappy actor boyfriend, Fisher. Luckily, Carlos (whom you may remember as the best friend from Jasmine Guillory’s first novel, The Wedding Date) is there to safely shepherd her out of the stadium.

I read this book when I was feeling sad and down, and what surprised me most about it was how, even when it was so joyful it defied gravity, it was still grounded in real-world problems. If you’re happy and looking for a happy read, it’ll be there. If you’re sad and looking to be cheered up, it’ll be there. Guillory works magic.

Monday's Not Coming Cover
cover description: A young Black girl is sitting down. She looks upset. Everything is tinted red.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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I found this book so intense and triggering that, in the title of the post I wrote about it, I put “I’m not reviewing Monday’s Not Coming.” The truth is that the post turned out to be a review anyway, but this YA novel about a girl whose best friend Monday disappears deals with some seriously painful subject matter.

The thing is, that’s what makes it great. As I wrote in my not-a-review, Tiffany D. Jackson knows that many teens are dealing with situations that would make many adults’ toes curl every day. Monday’s Not Coming will make those teens feel seen. (It made me feel seen, even though I’m 24.)

It’s technically a young adult novel, but it’s one that I think many adults would find riveting, too. Jackson’s writing style is pitch-perfect, and she finds the beauty even in this very brutal story. Like Sadie, Monday is impossible to forget.

Alif the Unseen Cover
cover description: A yellow and green abstract Arabesque pattern that also looks like the circuits of a computer.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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If you’re looking for a sci-fi/fantasy novel that breaks out of those genre’s typical  boxes, then it would be hard to do better than Alif the Unseen. This novel (technically YA, though it’s even more crossover-y than Sadie and Monday’s Not Coming) follows Alif, a pseudonymous hacker who finds himself on the wrong side of his Middle Eastern security state’s law enforcement.

It has djinn, oppressive governments, dystopian revolution, a love story, and lots of interesting things to say about faith, doubt, and Islam. It’s fun, funny, and profound in all the right places.

My wife is a computer programmer and cyber security expert, and I had a ton of fun talking over the tech in this novel with her. Alif the Unseen should be right up there with M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in the canon of game-changing cyber sci-fi.


Have you read and loved any of these? Do you have your own favorites of 2019 to add? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Book Review: THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is an essay collection so essential that I’m pained that it didn’t exist fifty years ago, or thirty, or ten. Thank goodness we have it now. Chronicling Esmé Weijun Wang’s years of living with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder (along with other compounding chronic and mystery illnesses like Lyme disease), its essays go far deeper than abnormal psych 101s. Wang instead weaves in more open-ended themes of liminal space, the boundaries of science and belief, and what it means to be permanently sick. The keenness and heart of The Collected Schizophrenias reminds me of the very best of Joan Didion.

If you live with mental illness, especially one of “the schizophrenias,” you need to read this book. If a loved one lives with schizophrenia, you need to read this book. And if you just plain love terrific nonfiction writing, you need to read this book.

You can read my full review below.


The Collected Schizophrenias Cover

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • publisher: Graywolf Press
  • publication date: February 5, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. Pan Gu the giant slept in an egg-shaped cloud; once released, he formed the world with his blood, bones, and flesh. God said, “Let there be light.” Ymir was fed by a cow who came from ice. Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

–from the essay “Diagnosis” in The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

I knew I would love The Collected Schizophrenias the second I held it in my hands. It’s a sturdy paperback, perfect bound, with a cover design like a particularly lovely composition book. I knew I would love it because that is the kind of notebook they allow you to have in a psych ward–that or a legal pad, which is what I wrote on during my own stay. If you’re a writer in a psych ward, you know that such a notebook is an escape.

What’s inside The Collected Schizophrenias also feels like an escape from the overly simple and the simply overwrought. Esmé Weijun Wang establishes a distinct style from the first page, which begins, simply, “Schizophrenia terrifies.” It does. The escape velocity from that mind-numbing terror–similar to the escape velocity required from mere bland sympathy–is one part clarity, one part mystery, one part wild love for oneself, others, and the world. Wang nails the combo. This book does not put its author-subject on display the way so many mental illness memoirs and biographies do, as if this were a zoo or a classroom. She gently but firmly commands a more personal kind of attention.

In the essay “Perdition Days,” Wang documents weeks spent in the Cotard delusion, when she believed she was dead. In “Reality, On-Screen,” she writes about how watching the movie Lucy during a psychotic episode warped reality, and how watching Catching Fire after the episode restored it, fragilely. In “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” she compares her obsession with The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing with the Creepypasta Wiki’s The Slender Man, who inspired two Wisconsin girls to stab a third.

In all three of those essays, Wang, a novelist as well as a nonfiction author, refers to needing to remove herself from fiction for her own safety when she’s psychotic. It’s a detail that moved me and perturbed me. I had never even considered it as a thing that someone might need to do. And that’s only one of many quiet but earth-shaking details in the The Collected Schizophrenias.

For each personal revelation here, there’s just as much research and reporting, on everything from the Americans with Disabilities Act to California’s dreaded 5150s to the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who went undercover to expose the terrible conditions in 19th century psych wards.

“The schizophrenias” of the title refers specifically to the kaleidoscope of diagnoses that make up psychotic disorders: schizophrenia, nonspecific psychoses, and schizoaffective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar or depression. Wang has that last schizophrenia: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

Less specifically, “the schizophrenias” seems to be a way of talking about a life lived in, as Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” percentages. Percentages of sane. Percentages of psychosis. Schizophrenias.

Schizophrenia may onset in your late teens, twenties, thirties, long after your life is already on its course. I’ve thought about that endlessly. My bipolar I disorder crested and changed my life when I was 17. I was psychotic too, and when I started treatment they thought I might have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, just as Wang does. I have now lived for years without psychosis. The schizophrenias seem to have been ruled out–for now. But I have always wondered if they might make up a second wave of my mental illness; now that I’m 24, they could be just around the corner.

After reading The Collected Schizophrenias, the thought of that potential new wave no longer feels frightening or crushingly sad to me. Wang gave me a picture of how my life–any life–might go on with schizophrenia; the way she writes about how her “physical” illnesses like chronic Lyme intertwine with her mental health only strengthens this picture of going on. The Collected Schizophrenias offers a new framework on how to be sick and whole–perhaps wholly sick–without losing your self underneath.

There are 13 essays in the book, and the only way you might know they were essays rather than chapters of a single memoir is that certain biographical information is occasionally repeated: Wang’s diagnosis (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type), her acceptance to Yale, her work in a psychological research lab. Somehow this works to make the book more cohesive, not less; it feels faceted, and each time this information was repeated I felt a different way about it. The narrative is remarkably tight, even when it veers far from chronology.

Every essay in The Collected Schizophrenias reminded me of Joan Didion. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working my way through The White Album for the past two months. Maybe it’s because, like Didion, Wang has strong ties to California, and California permeates this book.

But I think most of all it’s because both Didion and Wang tell stories using decisive, crystallizing, anchoring words even when those stories are about the times they felt most anchorless. Wang’s prose here is lilting and light, punctuated just enough by sharpness and dark. Didion’s, too. They blend the detail and rigor of reporters with the wide-ranging questions and openness of artists. Neither writer is ever just one thing. They are full notebooks. Perfect bound. How lucky we are to have their words to escape into.

The Collected Schizophrenias is everything I want creative nonfiction to be: sharp and soft in all the right places, conveying things that dates and numbers and statistics cannot. What a stunning book. I found it life-changing. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

I purchased my own copy of The Collected Schizophrenias and was in no way compensated for this review.