BURY WHAT WE CANNOT TAKE IS AN UNSETTLING TALE OF SURVIVAL

Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take is the deeply unsettling story of what happens when your family abandons you.

This is one of those books whose titles grabbed me before anything else. I’m pleased to report that the rest of the book is just as evocative as that title. In Maoist China, twelve year old Ah Liam reports his grandmother for vandalizing a portrait of Chairman Mao and so starts a terrible chain of events. The family attempts to flee China, but in a heartbreaking plot twist, they are can only take one child. The novel follows the consequences of the devastating choice, Seok Koon (the mother) makes.

Utterly mesmerizing from the first sentence, Bury What We Cannot Take paints a portrait of family shaken by a grave mistake. Read the full review here. Click To Tweet

“A girl child, as loathsome as a cowbird”

The plight of the girl child is powerfully encapsulated by the lives of many of the women in this story, but perhaps none more than San San’s. As proof that they will return, nine year old San San is left behind when her family flees to Hong Kong. However, when they do not return, the girl takes matters into her hands. We follow San San as the story flits across multiple perspectives: hers, Ah Liam’s, her mother’s, grandmother’s and father’s. Although described as “plain”, the girl is “bright and obedient” and proves herself resourceful.

After a failed escape plan, she begins to live as a street urchin bidding time until she can find a way to Hong Kong. San San’s sheer determination is truly inspiring. She proves herself not an average nine year old.

Betrayal abounds in Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take. Everyone in the family betrays someone. Even young San San quickly realizes that no one can be trusted. In reading this book, I mused on how true to life Chen’s writing is. The family dynamics create interesting questions about loyalty, rivalry and forgiveness.

“Western goods are not superior to Chinese goods”

Bury What We Cannot Take kindled my interest in Chinese history, especially about life in the Maoist era. Chen brings the period to life so vividly that it is as though one is there, waiting with bated breath. As someone with no knowledge of the Maoist era, this book was also an educational exercise. While communism might have sprouted from a well intentioned place, life in fifties China is truly disturbing for non conformists. These ones experience everything from home searches to public executions.The perpetual fear that pervades their lives is clearly conveyed throughout the novel.

Kirstin Chen's Bury What We Cannot Take

Bury What We Cannot Take kindled my interest in Chinese history, especially about life in the Maoist era. Chen brings the period to life so vividly that it is as though one is there, waiting with bated breath. Click To Tweet

In Summary

The story is dramatic and despite bearing the burden of multiple intersecting characters and subplots, it remains fast-paced. From a third person POV, Chen shows great mastery of a child’s voice and San San’s character anchors the story excellently. This sophomore novel lucidly captures the plight of the girl child, Chinese history and heartbreaking betrayal. Utterly mesmerizing from the first sentence, Bury What We Cannot Take paints a portrait of family shaken by a grave mistake, the results of which will linger after the story ends. This is what makes the book spectacular. 

Despite the fact that in a story like this, it would be easy to neatly apportion blame to all guilty parties, the story is complex as are most of the characters. The only exception would be Ah Zhai, the children’s father who in my opinion possesses no redeeming quality.

@kirstin.chen 's Bury What We Cannot Take is unsettling, vivid and compulsively readable. Click To Tweet

Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take is unsettling, vivid and compulsively readable. Highly recommended.

My Rating: 5/5 stars

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Chen’s novel is also featured on my list of 16 Books to look out for in 2018. Every book I’ve read from the list so far has been a HIT. This week, Kirstin Chen is also a guest on the BOOK’D column where she talks all about her reading habits and favorite writers.