A comedic, harrowing, thoughtful exploration of displacement, home, infectious fear


Simon Han

Nights When Nothing Happened: A Novel

Riverhead Books

Hardcover (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 978-0-5930-8605-6, 272 pgs., $26

November 17, 2020


Eleven-year-old Jack Cheng knows Plano is a scary place. “At an hour when the house held its breath and waited for something to happen, Jack stayed up and read books in which characters died, literally, of fright.” Jack is on watch and has taken the midnight shift, which is why he’s the one to find his five-year-old sister, Annabel, “curled around the toilet one night, sleepwalking into the swinging kitchen door another night” and then she sleepwalks out the front door. Jack finds her blocks away, barefoot, staring unseeingly at a streetlamp.


On Jack’s first day of middle school, his class is advised of the banned words: “Do not say stab, murder, choke, shoot, or bomb. Especially bomb. . . . Never say bomb.” They have active-shooter drills. Annabel’s teachers at her Montessori kindergarten warn of “bad touches,” teach them self-defense, and take their classes on a field trip to the Sixth Floor Museum: “And his head went blam! Like when Daddy dropped the watermelon.” Annabel reports that she and her friend Elsie watched the Zapruder film fourteen times.


Nights When Nothing Happened is Carrollton author Simon Han’s debut novel. It is a sometimes comedic, sometimes harrowing, always thoughtful exploration of displacement, home, family, the contradictions of our modern world, and the possible mistakes we make in arming our children against invasive, infectious fear.


When Nights When Nothing Happened opens, Patti and Liang are attempting to make Annabel sleep in her own bed. The displacement of Annabel from her parents’ bed serves as metaphor for the immigrant family’s psychological and emotional displacement from their native China, from their new home, and from each other. Annabel alone was born in the US, and she is the embodiment of this place. Privileged and indulged, Annabel is bright and brash and heedless of others, which has alchemized to aggression and bullying.


The Chengs are complex characters who do not give up their secrets easily. Liang and Patti are disillusioned with the trade-offs required for this Plano life. Liang’s photography business makes most of its money from an in-store booth where teenagers take selfies with props; Patti’s position at Texas Semiconductor demands hours that keep her from home and family: “There were fewer hours in America, or at least it felt that way.” Liang wants to “sleep like we sleep before, remember? . . . your foot touch my foot, like you want to make sure I am there.” This conflict scares the parents, inciting an emotional cold war that Annabel perceives as “A louder silence, as if they were screaming through the house, HEAR HOW SILENT WE ARE!” Shifting third-person-limited perspectives allows us into each character’s headspace, though they don’t cover the same action, therefore sparing us the confusion caused by a lesser writer wielding this technique.


The irony is that the Cheng parents chose Plano (“a suburb of motion sensors, outlet plug covers, automatic sliding doors, intercoms, sprinkler systems” and those ubiquitous Bradford pears) for its low crime rate and highly-rated schools, “in order to not be scared.” No one mentions the epidemic of heroin overdoses the decade before or the rash of suicides the decade before that. “Every year, a new wave of residents diluted the collective memory of the city, like fresh customers unwittingly enlisted in a company’s rebranding.” Metaphor abounds, even in the ever-expanding freeway system—“Machines romped across earthwork and concrete, programmed with two rules: always move forward, and do not, under any circumstances, touch each other.”


Are we teaching our children to be safe or to be afraid? What happens when we are so alienated from each other that we fail, despite what we think are our best intentions, to protect each other?


Simon Han is an impressive new talent, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.


Simon Han was born in Tianjin, China, and raised in various cities in Texas. His stories and essays have appeared in the Atlantic, the Texas Observer, Guernica, the Iowa Review, Electric Literature, and LitHub. The recipient of several fiction awards and arts fellowships, he lives in Carrollton, Texas.