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: “