Review: Nights When Nothing Happened
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Nights When Nothing Happened, by Simon Han (2020)
This book is a slow, ponderous burn. I found myself feeling distracted at times, but overall I really enjoyed it's contemplative prose.
The Chengs, a Chinese immigrant family living in Plano, TX, is made up of despondent father Liang, over-worked mother Patty, anxious 11-year old son Jack, and headstrong 5-year old daughter Annabel.
Annabel sleepwalks, and Jack spends most evenings chasing her down, or worrying about what she might get up to, while their parents sleep. Both kids are under-parented... Patty struggles to find a work-life balance with her job at a microchip company, and Liang meanders back and forth from his job as a photographer, or poker night with his friends. Both parents seem to look for any excuse to be out of the house. And while Jack is well-behaved and bookish, Annabel uses her freedom to push boundaries. On the night of their annual Thanksgiving gathering, her autonomy leads to an event that changes everything for the family, as Liang is wrongly accused of a crime.
The book rotates between them all, with POV chapters from each, offering different perspectives of many of the same events. Some things presented as fact by one character, are very different when seen through another's eyes. This context offers the reader insight into each persons' decisions, but the characters themselves remain lost in their own reasoning, resulting in miscommunications and anger. Language and cultural barriers with the outside world add to the confusion.
As the main story slowly unfolds, the characters' pasts are explored - in particular, Liang's troubled childhood, and Jack's life in China, living with his grandparents before joining his parents in Texas. As I saw described on Goodreads, Nights is "a quiet exploration of inherited trauma."
Han's writing has a smooth, dreamlike quality that feels very polished, so I was surprised to learn this is his debut novel. It's interesting to note that Han was also born in China and raised in Texas, and I'm sure this adds to the feeling of authenticity in the immigrant experience, and the anxieties and disorientation that can come from that.
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