The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.
Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.
It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.
Texas, 1952. 17-year-old Aaron Holland Broussard could just go to school and work at the local filling station. But his big mouth gets him in trouble over and over again. Problem is that he is a lot cleverer than the rest of the boys and this makes things even more complicated. When he spots Valerie Epstein in a fight with her boyfriend Grady Harrelson, he tries to help her thus triggering a series of events and making a lot of enemies. Grady is not a nobody just as his father whose business is all but legal. What starts as a boys’ fight end in a series of fatal murders involving not only the local gangsters but also Italian mafia.
James Lee Burke has the capacity of integrating a lot of themes into a fast-paced mystery novel. On the surface, we have the coming-of-age novel where boys make mistakes, bond with the wrong bunch and experience their first love. But beneath, we have all those war experiences of the parent generation which left the scars not only on the outside but also inside and marked them forever – and the threat of the boys of being sent to Korea from which many did not return. It is an accusation of what those useless wars do to people and what they bring back home than can never be made undone. Apart from this, the enormous violence and the easy availability of weapons of all kinds are also clearly shown. That more weapons do not lead to more security is obvious here and having kids grow up in this environment surely is not the best idea. What I found especially interesting was the side plot about the paedophile teacher – this is a topic hardly ever touched in novels, yet it should be highlighted what happened and how society dealt (and deals?) with victims and perpetrators.
All in all, I just rushed through the novel. The short chapters just flew by, the whole plot moves at a very fast pace and keeps you reading on. The dialogues are lively and authentic; the action is exactly what you would expect in such a novel. There is no question at all about James Lee Burke being the Grand Master of mystery writing.