Heaven Lake is part coming-of-age tale, part travelogue – a thoughtful and thought-provoking story about faith, loneliness, and love. It takes its time with some old-fashioned pacing but rewards the patient reader. It is, I think, the best Taiwan expat novel. Regardless of how you define that category, it’s a rather small pool, so I will broaden my praise to say it is the best English-language novel set in Taiwan that I have read. Surprisingly, although the 2004 book was a prize-winning bestseller in the United States, it never became the classic it deserves to be among Taiwan’s expat community.

Heaven Lake has an interesting origin story. It was 1989 in the Taiwanese backwater city of Touliu (Douliu). American John Dalton had moved to Taiwan several months earlier to teach English. One evening after work, Dalton and a few of his fellow expat teachers were eating at a restaurant. A local Taiwanese businessman approached them with an intriguing story and a strange offer. While on a recent business trip to China – newly opened to Taiwanese investment, tourism, and trade after a four-decade freeze – the man had, by chance, met, fallen deeply in love with, and proposed to “the most beautiful woman in China.” She and her family had accepted his proposal. However, the bureaucratic obstacles to a cross-strait marriage meant it would be many years before she’d be able to come to Taiwan. And thus an offer was made: ten thousand U.S. dollars for any foreigner willing to travel to China, marry the beauty, bring her back to Taiwan, and then immediately divorce her. Dalton didn’t give the proposition any serious consideration (even in 1989 dollars, the amount was hardly worth the moral compromise), but the proposal did stick in his mind, and a decade later would form the framework for his superb debut novel.

In Heaven Lake, recent college graduate Vincent leaves the small Midwest town of Red Bud, Illinois, to serve as a missionary in Touliu. When approached with the fake marriage proposal, he angrily turns it down. Circumstances will change though, and Vincent eventually finds himself on an epic overland journey from Hong Kong to Xinjiang in China’s extreme northwest to marry the beautiful Kai-ling.

Making the protagonist a missionary rather than an English teacher was a wise choice. While an English teacher can immerse himself in the culture or keep it at an arm’s length to the extent that he wishes, the missionary can’t. The “Jesus teacher” has to engage the local people but not go native. And being a young missionary is especially fraught with tension; apart from having to repress sexual desires, there’s the contradiction of giving moral guidance when personally knowing so little about life.

Vincent’s early days in Touliu are overwhelming. He struggles to makes sense of the strangeness of the place and peopl

There then began a time, several weeks’ worth of uncharted days, when Vincent roamed the various quarters of Touliu, its labyrinthlike open markets, its unruly business district, both its shabbier and more privileged residential neigborhoods where the homes were crannied together and forked by slim, winding alleyways. He was trying to form an articulate opinion of the town, one he could set to paper and pass on to his parents and a few longtime acquaintances at St. Mark’s Church in Red Bud. The shape of that opinion, though, proved to be something of a problem. Yes, the buildings were all formed of pearl-gray concrete rather than wood or brick. Yes, the traffic was unreasonably loud. But these were only the obvious differences. The real difference, Vincent believed, had something to do with the climate itself. Call it a variation of latitude, maybe, a subtle inflection in the atmosphere. Familiar objects seemed to weigh a few ounces less here. Odors were sharper. The air – how to describe it? – was oddly textured, foreign, its foreignness most noticeable in the scattered, coppery light of sunrise and dusk.

The paragraph above is a good example of the lovely writing in Heaven Lake. You don’t write a passage like this in a day or even a week. It’s the result of layered hard work and inspiration over a long period of time. Any writer would trade his daily target of five hundred words for a line like, “Familiar objects seemed to weigh a few ounces less here.” As well as being well crafted, the writing is accurate in its descriptions. I should know – I lived just down the road from Touliu for years, just missing the author by a year.

After arriving in Touliu, Vincent shares a house with Alec, a moody Scot with a fondness for marijuana. Alec is a seasoned traveler and the kind of affable deadbeat who in those days (the novel is set in 1989–1990) could drift in and out of Taiwan as they pleased, picking up lucrative teaching work and then suddenly departing to travel around Asia for months. There weren’t many foreigners in Taiwan at that time, especially in places like Touliu: “[Vincent’s] presence in Touliu’s markets and restaurants caused a stir. Children squealed in surprise and called out ‘American’ or ‘outsider.’”

Vincent moves into a vacant house, which he turns into a ministry building. He offers free English lessons followed by Bible study, and also takes on some English classes around town for extra money (he has loans to pay off). These include a class of adoring girls at a high school; yes, the weakness of human flesh will be sorely revealed.

As an interesting aside (an infuriating one, actually) regarding the remuneration for teaching, Dalton mentions that Vincent was paid NT$500 an hour for one of his classes. Damn, that’s not much less than what foreign teachers in Taiwan earn now, a quarter of a century later. And given the drop in currency and purchasing power, in real terms that’s about double what more qualified teachers are earning today.

The time setting of 1989–1990 is an interesting one as it straddles the contemporary and historical. Foreigners are no longer such a novelty in Taiwan, their isolation much less acute, and China–Taiwan relations are much different. China has, of course, changed beyond recognition, and travel there is no longer the ordeal it once was.

By the end of the book, Vincent has – through his various trials – learnt a lot about himself and about life.

But he rose the next morning anyway, rose sluggishly and thick-tongued and with an abiding conviction that whatever his present life was leading to, it was not so much a wealth of sustained happiness or pinnacle of accomplishment as a circuitous and impossible striving toward a destination that couldn’t be reached. The thought was oddly satisfying. It might have been his first truly adult understanding. Maybe the successful lives were those that were gracefully endured. And assuredly, there were other adults in Touliu who knew this all too well, men and women right now rising from their beds, prepared to press on with another day because, in the final and deepest analysis, what other worthwhile choice was there?

I won’t go into further detail about the characters or plot for fear of spoiling the wonderful turns in the narrative. Instead, I’d like to look at a few aspects of the writing of the book.

As Vincent travels across China, he reads an unnamed Russian novel. As a fan of the Russian classics, not knowing which novel it was bugged me. Reading Dalton’s website, I see he had Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina in mind. Dalton says that he took inspiration from a sub-plot in the novel, that of “Levin and his struggle to understand his place in the world and his own contradictory nature.”

After four years in Taiwan, Dalton returned to the United States and began work on his novel. The writing was an epic, eight-year struggle. On his website he describes how, by the summer of 1996 he had nearly 280 pages done. A close rereading of the novel set-off alarm bells: “foolishly, I’d begun the book with eighty pages set in Red Bud, Illinois and another thirty in a Taipei parish – all pages designed to convince the reader that my protagonist, Vincent, was serious about his vocation. But good writers could accomplish the same thing in a few paragraphs or short scenes. And much of the rest of the novel was functional but not really good.”

Dalton cut the first 110 pages and started over.

The writing proceeded slower now because the sentences needed to be more articulate, more reflective of a character’s thoughts and feelings, wiser, deeper.… And so I kept on. I taught. I waited tables. I lived my life. I continued to work on my book. In 1998 I reached the halfway point. By then I’d been working on the book five years. Friends and family, who’d once been encouraging, now, out of concern or embarrassment, avoided the topic of my novel.”

He finished the novel in 2002. His agent sent it to a dozen publishers; five were interested, and a week later he had signed a contract. Redemption!

Despite the struggles, Dalton says he never considered giving up:

And it wasn’t because I knew it would eventually work out, or that I was being brave and determined. It’s just that, year after year, I meant to finish and was dismayed and ashamed when I did not. I wish, in retrospect, that I hadn’t felt such shame at not finishing. To be a struggling writer is an honorable enough thing, no more or less honorable than any other honest endeavor. All along I felt toward the book the way a railroad hobbyist might feel toward the elaborate model railroad he’s building, piece by piece, in his basement. I wanted it to be detailed and beautiful and convincing. As creator, I’ll never know to what degree I was successful. Nor is it possible to escape the struggling that comes, inevitably, with each new book, including the second novel I’m writing now. But how lucky I’ve been. And what a privilege it is to choose your own project and sort through life’s dilemmas in the form of a grand story. What a pleasure to spend the morning shaping a scene, a description, a bit of dialogue, writing, rewriting, struggling, and feel, for the time being at least, that you’ve gotten it just right.

John Dalton lives in St. Louis with his Taiwanese wife (they met during his time in Touliu) and two daughters. He is an associate professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where he teaches fiction writing.

Heaven Lake is published by Scribner.

For more on John Dalton and his books, visit the author’s website.