The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang

Gothic and complex debut novel about mental illness and family trauma from an award-winning spoonie heroine
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The cover of The Border of Paradise, by Esme Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise, has been a spoonie heroine of mine for a while now. Her ‘Productivity Journaling With Limitations’ free email course (now replaced with Encouragement Notes) was a minor revelation for me in my efforts to work out how I could live with chronic illness as an ambitious person without resorting to numbing out and giving up.

When I discovered Wang’s writings (including her Twitter account and website), I found her approach to living with chronic illness hopeful, nuanced and generous. Wang has been dealing with schizoaffective disorder since her teens and late stage Lyme Disease since 2013. She’s also an essayist, mental health advocate and Granta Best Young American Novelist. Reading her reinforced for me that, while not all of us can win literary prizes, it is possible for us all to work towards goals within our available resources – however limited those might be – and also find dignity and meaning in the day-to-day.

I’d had my eye on her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, pretty much since its release in 2016. But spoons didn’t allow until earlier this year, when I finished it in one week while on a silent retreat (cutting out talking really allowed to me to focus my spoons on reading!).

What’s the gist?

In booming postwar Brooklyn, the Nowak Piano Company is an American success story. There is just one problem: the Nowak’s only son, David. A handsome kid and shy like his mother, David struggles with neuroses. When David inherits the piano company at just 18 and his first love breaks things off, David sells the company and travels around the world. In Taiwan, his life changes when he meets the daughter of a local madame — the sharp-tongued, intelligent Daisy. Returning to the United States, the couple (and newborn son) buy an isolated country house in Northern California’s Polk Valley. As David’s health deteriorates, he has a brief affair with his first love, producing a daughter.

It’s Daisy’s solution for the future of her two children, inspired by the old Chinese tradition of raising girls as sisterly wives for adoptive brothers, that exposes Daisy’s traumatic life, and the terrible inheritance her children must receive. Framed by two suicide attempts, The Border of Paradise is told from multiple perspectives, culminating in heartrending fashion as the young heirs to the Nowak fortune confront their past and their isolation. [Blurb from Unnamed Press]

What did reviewers say?

The Border of Paradise is shaped by darkness and the kind of delicious story that makes for missed train stops and bedtimes, keeping a reader up late for just one more page of dynamic character-bouncing perspective… It is the author’s stunning introduction to the literary world.”  —New York Times

Gothic in tone, epic in ambition, and creepy in spades.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Wang’s prose is beautiful and restrained, and her generous, precise characterization makes every perspective feel organic and utterly real in the face of increasingly theatrical circumstances. The result — the story of an American family stretched and manipulated into impossible shapes — is an extraordinary literary and gothic novel of the highest order.” —NPR Books

What did I think?

Wang’s agent apparently had this novel rejected 40 times by publishers before it was finally accepted by Unnamed Press, because it was considered ‘too bleak’. Luckily, bleak is my jam. I’m a fan of the gothic and very comfortable with mental illness as a topic, so I had no qualms about reading a novel that opens with a suicide. Got to say though, the suicide is literally just the beginning of the creepiness when it comes to this book.

While some of the events within wouldn’t be out of place in a horror novel, Wang’s style is experimental and delicate. Which only ramps up the impact. Her characters are so precisely drawn and sympathetic, even when making the most bizarre choices, and her depiction of mental illness and the experience of displacement and culture clash is so unclichéd and refreshing, that you can’t detach yourself from these people even as you watch them inch towards an inevitably terrible climax. I’ve never read another book like this.

Would I recommend it to other spoonies?

While it’s not a difficult book exactly, it’s also not necessarily going to be an easy read if you’re brain befogged, but for me it was very much worth the spoons. I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks they can handle it.

The Border of Paradise, 2016, Unnamed Press, can be bought on Amazon (affiliate link) and at other bookshops.

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