Esmé Weijun Wang’s novel The Border of Paradise (The Unnamed Press, 2016) forces readers to look inward, to question how they define their own happiness and spirituality. Despite its overall darkness and some truly repulsive moments, this story reveals the manner in which human beings affect one another on a spiritual level, as well as how very different people can sometimes share the same struggles, perhaps without even realizing it.
The plot follows the tragic Nowak family as they struggle to retain (or, sometimes, even find) faith in God, understanding of one another, and the will to live. Throughout the narrative, the perspective shifts from family member to family member; it opens with David Nowak, heir to a piano manufacturing company, post-World War II. David, who often feels burdened by carrying on his family name, suffers from a combination of insomnia, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and profound depression that leave him an enigma to his family (and the whole of his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, neighborhood). David’s mental illness manifests partly as a continuous battle with suicidal thoughts, and this is what initially causes him to question the faith in which he was raised and ultimately to question the existence of God. In an effort to alleviate the pain of his suicidal thoughts and struggling faith, David seeks to control the other characters in the story, effectively making his pain theirs and spreading the depression and faithlessness forward.
David often uses the female characters in the story as crutches against his illness. Specifically, he repeatedly uses his relationships with women to mobilize himself in his chronic struggle against depression and the symptoms of despair and inertia that seem to drive his more destructive tendencies. David seeks relief in these women, hoping that their love and devotion to him could somehow bring him out of his misery. The most important women in David’s life, however, seem to meet their ruin through their interactions with him. His steady girlfriend, Marianne, begins to lose her faith because of David’s influence; his wife, Daisy, who gives up her life in Taiwan and moves to the US in order to start a new life with him, finds herself isolated, resented, unloved by her new husband, and alone in a land that is strange to her. When the women in whom David seeks relief fail to provide, by their mere existence, the solution to all of his problems, David returns to a state of self-secluded misery; inevitably, his partners are negatively affected, frequently beginning to experience depressive episodes of their own.
When his attraction and marriage to Daisy both sour, David again seeks out Marianne, his first love, at the convent where she lives in devotion to God. He admires her Aryan-esque beauty, that is like his own, and strong faith; he eventually seduces her, despite her marriage to God and his own to Daisy. Their tryst results in Marianne’s pregnancy; she is forced to quit her service as a nun, while Daisy is, in turn, forced to adopt her husband’s secret love child as her own. In his relationship with Marianne, we see the author complicating David’s faith: he can’t seem to believe in God himself, yet he finds himself drawn to his ex-girlfriend because of her devout faith. And yet, it is this very fascination with Marianne and her devotion that leads her to go against her vows to God by sleeping with him. It also causes David to break his holy marital vows. In his effort to find real faith, he manages to wreck the lives and faith of those around him, pushing each woman into misery simply because they cannot give him the thing he desires most: enough happiness to keep away his the pain his despair causes him:
“For so many years I have thought I ought to be able to handle this, and the only refrain that returned to me was I’m in pain, I’m in pain, I’m in pain.”
David’s unhappiness is soon extended to his children, William and Gillian. David is unable to accept or show love to the son he and his wife Daisy created together, but he has no difficulty adoring Marianne’s daughter, Gillian, whom David considers more traditionally beautiful due to their similar Aryan features. His favoritism does not escape Daisy’s eye, however:
“He was the father of another woman’s child. The other woman would birth the child and that child would have blond hair. It would have light eyes and skin and it would look like him and not me. Never would it look anything like me.”
Daisy, worrying about her son’s well being with her husband’s clear favoritism, soon takes on the role of both loving parents to William while her husband dotes on Gillian. The result is a painfully broken family dynamic. David’s inability to show his son love shapes William into the tragic, codependent character he becomes while also dividing and alienating his family from one another. Meanwhile, David is falling further into madness, claiming impossible things such as having met Jesus and suffering in bouts of silence while Daisy tries to raise their children. Despite her efforts to keep her husband happy, David kills himself and leaves her alone to raise their children in a house in the woods. In despair, Daisy becomes controlling and abusive, devoid of a spiritual understanding of right and wrong. Her broken spirit and fear of abandonment leads her to make the terrible decision that, in an effort to keep her children from ever leaving, she will make Gillian William’s tongyanxi, or sister-turned-wife. Without David there to keep the curse of faithlessness and depression alive, it seems Daisy carries the Nowak curse forward.
As their mother becomes more abusive and her brother seeks her sexually against her will, Gillian tries to escape the Nowak curse. She looks to God for hope, praying for a day where she can leave the prison of their household. When the opportunity for escape finally arrives, Gillian arms herself with a Bible and a knife and sets out to find Marianne. Gillian knows that Marianne is her former piano teacher; she does not realize that Marianne is also her biological mother. Marianne is also unaware of their full circumstances; after David’s death, Daisy told Marianne that Gillian had been killed in a car accident. Upon being reunited with her daughter, Marianne takes on the role of motherhood willingly and with love—and yet it seems almost an impossible task, due to the damage David wrought on the child. Gillian cannot seem to understand the outside world: she threatens strangers with her knife when she thinks they might hurt her and refuses to leave the house. Despite the difficultly she has reaching her emotionally damaged child, her daughter’s return brings Marianne to pray again. In a story where David has controlled his women and children to the point of estranging them from God or even the natural order of the world, this is a sign of hope.
However, the curse of David’s influence returns when Gillian finally tells her mother that William is living alone in the house that she escaped. Marianne and Gillian to go retrieve William from the house; shortly after being reunited as siblings, Gillian and William realize that they feel trapped in the life and roles that David and Daisy created for them; they have no faith that there is a possibility of creating a new life. Gillian drugs a pot of tea with a strong dose of sedative, intending to kill all three of them. Before she, too, can fall asleep, Gillian begins to set the whole house on fire, planning for her family and herself to go up in flames with the home that was their whole world—as though the only way to rid them all of David’s influence is to give into it entirely.
At the last minute—and in the last pages of the book—Gillian finds herself fighting to pull her brother from the burning house as it collapses. Marianne and Daisy are now gone. The house that was physically Gillian’s and William’s whole world is also gone; every semblance of order and structure from their old life has literally crashed and burned. Perhaps they can create a new world for themselves, together. Thus, while the final scene of Gillian and William passed out outside the house might appear to be one of absolute tragedy, it is really one of triumph: Gillian chooses her love for her brother and faith over allowing the sins of their parents to control their future.
Bennet LeMaster is a senior at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She is currently pursing a major in English with a concentration in creative writing. Her background is in film, where she worked in the wardrobe and production department of sets. As a published writer and mixed media artist, her passion lies in the link between visual art and writing as a means of exploring the world around us. In her spare time, she is an avid reader, trains as a vocalist, writes poetry, and studies Spanish.