Upon hearing news of some far-off tragedy — heartbreaking but seemingly impossible, completely removed from our own plane of existence — our instinctual reactions vary. Most of us feel pity and empathy for those unknown on what may be the worst day of their lives. We sigh and shake our heads at the unfairness of it all. Often we’ll murmur some iteration of “I can’t even imagine,” unable to picture something so terrible ever befalling us or our loved ones. We finish reading the news, listening to the story, watching the video and move on, while any echo of what we just learned flees from our memories.
For many of us, these kinds of life-altering events are an impossibility. For Mia Parkson, that unspeakable, unimaginable thing became her reality.
“We didn’t call the police right away,” she tells us on the first page of Angie Kim’s “Happiness Falls,” the day her father went missing on a typical Tuesday morning in a Virginia suburb. Her family — mother Hannah, twin brother John and little brother Eugene — went through the motions of their daily routine without anticipating what would come next: a normal morning for a slightly abnormal family. Or, as Mia calls them, “indubitably, inherently atypical.” At the crux of this atypicality is 14-year-old Eugene, the nexus of the novel and the driving force that propels the story forward. Dually diagnosed with autism and a rare genetic disorder called mosaic Angelman syndrome, Eugene struggles with motor control and communication, unable to read, write or talk. He saw what happened to his father that morning but is unable to tell a soul. Whatever happened to his dad and whatever message or cry for help Eugene may want to express is trapped inside him, leaving his family, and the reader, clinging to his every word unspoken, desperate to find a way to unravel the truth as a seemingly innocent, though atypical, family is thrown into turmoil and scrutiny.
“Happiness Falls” is not just a mystery novel or a whodunnit. Nor is it a prototypical, Norman Rockwell depiction of a nuclear family. As always in her writing, Kim goes beyond tropes. Each character is carefully crafted — their thoughts, feelings and interpersonal relationships are raw and deeply relatable. With each chapter, Kim peels back the layers of this atypical family, making us love them, relate to them and fear for them more and more with every word.
The plot of Kim’s last novel, “Miracle Creek,” featured a murder trial of grand proportions, a tragedy that gained national attention. “Happiness Falls” is more personal, contained to one family in one town. This close-knit intimacy packs an emotional punch.
Perhaps the strongest and most compelling aspect of “Happiness Falls” is the complexity of the narrator, Mia. As the older sibling of a special-needs child, Mia can’t help but feel like a permanent afterthought to her family, forever expected to be independent and self-assured. Her resentments, fears, insecurities and deep, earth-shattering love for her family and her little brother seep out of every word of her narration as she takes readers back to stories from her childhood in Korea, stories of growing up an outsider in both her Korean community and her American one and stories of deep familial wounds. As a narrator and as a person, Mia is nothing if not rational, a logical overthinker to a fault. Thorough in her narration, Mia walks us through every possibility, and it is almost impossible to separate her thoughts, memories and theories from our own. We are swept up in her anxious ramblings, footnotes and asides, and as she begins to question and doubt her family, we question and doubt alongside her. Mia’s narration throws readers into the thick of the plot, keeping us hooked on her every thought, word and theory.
Through Mia, we uncover both the secrets and mysteries of the case and those of her family. While some novels with thriller or mystery elements get swept up in delusions of grandeur — dramatic revelations of monumental secrets, plot twists that teeter on the edge of unbelievable and impossible — Kim keeps it beautifully simple. The bits and pieces of this family’s life are perfectly believable, so frighteningly logical that it worries us. Would my loved one keep that secret? Could this ever happen to me? While we may groan in dismay or cry out in frustration at these characters’ decisions and the secrets they keep, we can’t help but understand their reasoning. We wonder: Would I do the same if that were me?
Throughout the tantalizing progression of “Happiness Falls,” you remain on the edge of your seat, heart pounding in your chest as you turn the pages with shaking hands, terrified of what revelations could lie on the next page. The art of crafting this supernova of a novel lies in Kim’s skill at building the fragile family dynamic between her central cast of characters and in her careful, light-handed manipulation of the readers. The novel builds slowly but surely, and Kim works hard to lead us astray, twisting our perspectives and playing off of our preconceived notions and predilections.
You will fear the worst, hope for the best and breathe a sigh of relief all in the span of a single chapter before being thrown back into the fray. Kim takes us not only through the ups and downs of the novel, but through a labyrinth of deeper societal themes and analyses that challenge our presumptions and prejudices. While leading us through this beautiful, riveting story, Kim gently pokes and prods at our beliefs and biases with each chapter, deconstructing our views on language, communication, happiness and intelligence.
“Happiness Falls” may be about a family and a disappearance, but this is Eugene’s story, whether or not he can tell it himself. At the heart of this delicate narrative-weaving is Eugene. Our perception of Eugene as both a character and a human clouds our judgment, shapes our predictions of the novel’s end and prods us with questions. If you were to look at Eugene, what would you see? Would you see a child, unable to communicate, read or write, deserving of pity? Would you see a teenager, capable of outbursts and anger like any other child? Or would you see a human being, crushed by the weight of low expectations, capable of more than anyone imagined?
These questions, and others’ responses to them, might fill you with simmering anger or turn your stomach, but it’s their central role in the novel that pushes the story forward.
As the characters of “Happiness Falls” grapple with questions like these, we see them grow as caretakers, as brothers, as sisters and as friends. We see them grow as people, and, after a little fewer than 400 pages, we find we have grown alongside them.
“Happiness Falls” will push you to the brink. It will scare you and excite you. It will break your heart before carefully stitching it back together again as you watch this raw, real, beautiful family heal, grow and forgive — each other and themselves. “Happiness Falls” is an illuminating, life-changing, completely atypical masterpiece. Do yourself the favor and read it.
Senior Arts Editor Annabel Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org