From the outside, the Chengs seem like poster children for the enduring promise of the American Dream. But then little Annabel begins to sleepwalk at night, putting in motion a string of misunderstandings that strips away their faðcade of suburban normalcy, threatening to set the community against them and turn their dream into tragedy.
[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.
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.
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.