In World And Town, Gish Jen describes concentric circles of isolation among a handful of characters—a widow, a teenager, a divorced homesteader—who have chosen their loneliness, only to find that they don’t much care for it. The elaboration on their shrinking worlds never becomes monotonous, which is a credit to Jen’s ingenuity and her willingness to dig to the roots of the tiny Vermont town where her fourth book takes place.
Hattie Kong was first sent to Riverlake as a teenager when her missionary mother and Chinese father arranged to have her smuggled into the U.S. during the Japanese occupation, using false papers. Now, after seeing her son off to Hong Kong and losing her best friend and husband to cancer, Hattie again withdraws to Riverlake, raising shelter dogs and venturing to town only for yoga class and to attempt to prevent the town zoning board from issuing a permit for a cell-phone tower. Still, she can’t help bringing a plate of cookies as an opening to the new neighbors in the rickety trailer, ushering herself into their lives. Foster care and abuse have fractured the Chhungs, the Cambodian refugees who have landed at Hattie’s door; as Hattie takes a shine to teenager Sophy, Sophy allows herself to become absorbed into the local fundamentalist church, while she and brother Sarun hide out from their juvenile-probation officer.
World And Town reflects the many-toothed wheels that turn in a community whose residents have grown so close that separation is impossible. A friend of Hattie’s leaves her husband with the church’s encouragement, only to watch him build a cabin on her lawn that looks directly into her bedroom window; his rambling monologue about their marriage, and his rejection from it, introduce a note of passion other characters pick up only later. Gossip is the meal as well as the occasion for it, and each chapter takes a thick, satisfying bite of the local specialty while maintaining, as Jen does, the sense of a complete world behind every harmless skirmish.
Even the Chhungs are compelled to stake out their own territory: Their presence in Riverlake affords entertainment until they find the scrutiny overpowering, and through their eyes, Hattie comes to realize she is under the same surveillance. As Hattie and the Chhungs struggle to bridge their own divide, they come to rely on their shared sliver of experience, of being outsiders among outsiders. Jen’s masterful book suggests that’s almost enough to fill the gap.