The Washington Post
YZ Chin’s “Edge Case” begins with a husband’s disappearance — but leads to self-discovery.
Edwina and Marlin, the couple at the center of YZ Chin’s novel “Edge Case,” have been working in the tech industry in New York for several years, but their H-1B visas for “foreign workers in special occupations” are about to expire. Unless they can convince their employers to sponsor their green card applications, they’ll either have to return to Malaysia or risk becoming undocumented in America during the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Despite this existential time bomb ticking away in the background, the couple appears happily married until the day Marlin packs a suitcase and moves out without any explanation.
From there, Chin’s novel becomes a kind of suspense tale as Edwina struggles to make sense of her husband’s disappearance — and find him. But “Edge Case” delves deeper than your typical missing-person mystery. It’s also a book about a woman trying to understand who she is on her own and where she belongs in the world.
In an extended direct address to an unnamed “you,” Edwina’s happy memories of her life with Marlin give way and the cracks in her marriage become more apparent. Edwina, a frequently unreliable narrator, acknowledges that Marlin’s personality did change over time, but the “shift was so gradual, there seemed to be no medical or spiritual cause for concern.” However, she eventually reveals that several significant events occurred during the six-month period before he left, including the death of Marlin’s father in Malaysia and Marlin’s growing interest in mystical activities.
Edwina understands that “when someone doesn’t love you anymore, you’re supposed to walk away graciously. . . . To do otherwise would be creepy, stalkerish.” But as the days stretch into weeks, Marlin’s decision still strikes her as completely illogical, so much so that she considers a wide range of possible explanations for his behavior, including mental illness, a head injury and even black magic. Although she does engage in some “creepy, stalkerish” behavior to learn more about his whereabouts, such as trying to get access to his workplace and questioning his friends and relatives, these detective-like activities are not the novel’s most compelling source of drama.
Where “Edge Case” shines brightest is its depiction of characters who live in a liminal state, never certain where home will be or where they truly belong. As in her 2018 story collection, “Though I Get Home” (inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem), Chin is interested in the idea of home as both a cherished place and a complicated destination.
At one point, Edwina wonders: “By next year, what shade would I stand under, what clothes would I wear, what food would I eat? What language would I be speaking?” This fraught existence extends to her options for locating Marlin, whom she can’t report as a missing person for fear of attracting the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And despite disliking her work and most of her all-male colleagues, she’s forced to go to the office while her husband is missing, because getting fired will void her visa and destroy any chance of obtaining a green card. Even the things that many U.S. citizens take for granted, such as posting critical comments about their government on social media or seeking therapy to maintain or improve their mental health, can potentially be used against visa workers who have to be “good” in so many ways if they wish to stay in the country permanently.
Further complicating this tenuous state of existence is the fact that Edwina and Marlin are from Malaysia, where Muslims represent the majority. Neither character is Muslim, but upon returning to the United States after Marlin’s father’s funeral, they still receive extra scrutiny at the airport during the height of the Muslim travel ban. The experience of being interrogated by ICE highlights something Edwina has long felt as a minority in both countries, but never understood so clearly: “I had merely moved from a place that wasn’t mine to another place that also wasn’t mine.”
At times, Edwina’s search seems logical to the point of dispassionate, more focused on finding an explanation than finding the man she professes to love. But her behavior is entirely in keeping with what she does for a living as a quality assurance analyst, identifying problems and their causes. In effect, Edwina is trying to root out the “edge cases” of her failed marriage — the “rare situations or use cases that engineers might miss when they write code, resulting in ugly bugs.”
“Edge Case” doesn’t lack for interesting characters and complications, which Chin spreads generously throughout the novel. Among those that could have been explored in slightly more depth: Edwina’s eating disorders and propensity to self-harm; her relationship with her hypercritical mother; and her tendency to minimize her experiences as a legal immigrant on a work visa, always comparing how lucky she is compared with families that are being separated, held in detention centers and subjected to ICE raids. Chin, however, ultimately rewards her readers by revealing why Marlin chose to leave. The result is a touching, introspective story about identity, belonging and the effects of long-term transience on both the heart and soul.
“Edge Case” delves deeper than your typical missing-person mystery. It’s also a book about a woman trying to understand who she is on her own and where she belongs.