[D]esperation pervades every page of Simon Han’s debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened. ... What’s most fascinating about Nights When Nothing Happened is the way Han, who was born in China and raised in Texas, explores how anxiety thwarts the archetypal experience of immigrant success. In his telling, the American Dream is disrupted by nightmares that a good job and a house in the suburbs can’t quell ... Han builds the tension in this story slowly, but he builds it with exquisite care, and it’s entirely worth the investment ... Physical attacks, name-calling, job discrimination — such dramatic expressions of prejudice naturally draw our attention, but Nights When Nothing Happened captures a more insidious breed of racism: an atmosphere of White wariness that the Chengs must constantly navigate ... Han’s expansive sympathy and twilight lyricism make Nights When Nothing Happened a poignant study of the immigrant experience. This is an author who understands on a profound level the way past trauma interacts with the pressures of assimilation to disrupt a good night’s sleep, even a life.
While the book is driven more by characterization than by plot, Han delivers the few pivotal moments with such skill that they are jaw-droppers ... Han displays incredible range as a novelist, oscillating between honest, almost tangibly real scenes, opaque dreams and refractive memories. He portrays Annabel’s and Jack’s points of view with remarkable integrity, while Liang and Patty are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, doing their absolute best for their children while grappling with their pasts ... Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.
This novel reminds us what it’s like navigating a foreign country: Connections feel frayed, self-doubt proliferates, the immigrant is never sure what is normal and what isn’t ... There’s much to admire in this debut novel. Simon Han’s voice embodies the monotony of feeling out of place, of realizing that life continues to roll forward, even if all you experience is inertia. To survive this kind of discord, the Chengs must first overcome their sense of alienation—from one another and from white America—and allow room for forgiveness.
Gently, Han pulls the strings of each family member, moving them further from one another, to reveal the cracks in the unit ... To describe the event that causes things to unravel would do a disservice to Han’s expert pacing. Throughout Nights When Nothing Happened, Han lingers in stillness, underlining moments of unease and sadness. While Patty watches her husband and children interact, whether they’re passing each other in the hallway or keeping quiet at dinner, she’s forced to ask herself what the silence means. In delivering these small but crushing observations, Han continuously asks if Patty’s and Liang’s sacrifices were worth it.
When Liang is wrongly accused of a crime by his neighbors, a misunderstanding that he doesn't have the English proficiency to refute, it's the closest thing to something happening in the book ... Like many books about Chinese American immigrants, the most compelling moments come from the characters' pasts. Particularly poignant is the story of Liang's mother, who dies in an accidental fall shortly after giving birth to her son ... Though Han's intent was clearly to keep this novel quiet, I did wish that so much of the drama wasn't left to the imagination. The story glosses over Liang's interactions with law enforcement after he's accused, as well as Patty and Liang's painful decision to separate. After the pivotal accusation, I expected the plot to come to a boil, but instead it returned to a simmer – and stayed there ... Nights When Nothing Happened is a brief novel best read slowly, so one can savor the resonance and originality Han wrings from the quotidian. Readers should expect an experience more like watching a Wong Kar-wai film than a Kathryn Bigelow one; Han's gift at zeroing in on matters of the conflicted heart is its own reward.
... an exquisitely written examination of living between two worlds ... Han, a graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program, writes prose so lyrical and beautiful it’s easy to lose the trail of narration. We forget whether we are in Plano or Tianjin, so masterfully subtle is the shifting between settings and time periods. In the end, it doesn’t matter. This novel begs for rereading to absorb the details of place and time and character that may have been missed while meandering through the gorgeous descriptions[.]
In this exemplary debut, Han explores childhood trauma and the impact words and silence can have on both building and harming relationships. He writes with sensitivity and tenderness, allowing his fully fleshed-out characters to take on lives of their own and tell their heartbreaking perspectives directly to readers. Readers will be gripped by this beautiful debut.
Under its prosaic, placid surface, there are troubling layers in his Plano, a place haunted by the unspoken tragedies of its past. Han knows this territory intimately ... Simon Han’s creation of the Chengs is remarkable for his refusal to make them into heroic figures. He is bold enough to portray them, with great understanding and tenderness, as no one other than the striving, anxious, imperfect humans that they are.
Han has imagined compelling modern characters whose feelings of isolation swell while in the midst of performing 'America.' And though Han’s work is intended to be quiet, it is sometimes too quiet. One feels the desire to rage on the Chengs’ behalf, for much is made of the episodes of sleepwalking, parental absences and various abstinences, for there to remain so much silence. At its end, the reader is left hoping that the Chengs might come to better understand what has befallen them rather than the immigrant’s oft-repeated avoidance of the agony ... Though the weight of the American dream seems ever present, there is an ethereal quality to the Chengs’ family life. Han has a keen ability to write of not only the subtleties of the disappointments and loneliness that can be found within families, but also of how the specific and often unsubtle threats of American oppression, especially against perceived outsiders, can seep into the immigrant’s most intimate familial relationships.
... beautifully crafted ... a deceptively quiet book ... Han sensitively portrays each member of this struggling family as it falls apart and then attempts to realign itself. What comes through on every page of this melancholy book is the price each must pay for the opportunity to be part of the American success story.
... remarkable ... Han expertly shifts the ground under the narrative, constantly shaking the snow globe to nudge the reader's perspective away from the familiar. The restrained prose is all the more effective as it releases a Molotov cocktail during a singular moment when Jack’s desire to establish a place in his family clashes with his father’s shaky societal standing. Han’s characters are authentic, vulnerable, and utterly convincing, delivering one dynamite novel ... An astutely realized portrait of the collateral damage wrought by the pursuit of the American dream.
... ambitious if mixed ... The family’s survival is dependent on a slippery sense of identity and difficulty in belonging in the Texas suburb, which permeate the narrative amid other unfortunately underdeveloped themes (duty vs. love, genteel racism). Most of the characterizations are convincing, though Annabel, even in close third-person narration, comes across as overly precocious ... Still, as Liang struggles through the consequences of the accusation, Han succeeds in drawing the portrait of a new American family while demonstrating a talent for creating a sense of place through the eyes of immigrants. The premise is intriguing, but Han doesn’t quite stick the landing.