Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: "Waiting" by Ha Jin

Waiting by Ha Jin just became the first surprise book of the year. It didn’t make much of a buzz on my personal radar, even with its premise and big gold National Book Award sticker on the front. If anything, it detracted me from putting a lot of emotional stock into reading this, since I typically like the finalists for this award more than I do the winners of it, with last year’s finalists, Kevin powers’ The Yellow Birds and Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King making my top ten lists about a month ago. So when I started reading this book, and so willfully gave myself over to it emotionally, it came as quite a surprise. It seems to be a theme in Chinese literature to not only be realistic, but almost bleakly so. This book, along with Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, does away completely with any kind of supernatural elements. You won’t find any talking sheep or metaphysical wells, or things of that sort that you will find in other Asian literature, just stark brutal realism. But unlike Mo Yan’s novel, which is needlessly brutal, it is easy to tell through the writing that Ha Jin has a heart and the same kind of emotional investment that the reader has. This is a novel about desire unmet, a system that, both consciously and unconsciously, get in the way of innocent people’s dreams and the power and fortitude of patience. The synopsis on the back is a bit misleading, because it makes the story out to one of adultery. Thankfully, that is not the case. The novel centers on the relationship between Lin Kong, and army doctor and Manna Wu, a nurse who is stationed at his camp. They form a bond after he helps her escape an attack, and fall deeply in love. The only problem is that Lin Kong is married to Shuyu, a woman he does not love and was forced to marry by his family. Despite not living together, they are still considered married in the eyes of Chinese law, and every year, when Lin goes to the court house to obtain a divorce, and every year Shuyu refuses to agree to one. He comes back every time embarrassed that he was not successful, and the novel follows the eighteen years that need to take place so he Lin won’t need his wife’s permission to divorce her. While it is a novel about patience, it is also a great novel about sacrifice. Through those eighteen years, a lot happens, Lin’s daughter grows up, he tries to get Manna to marry someone else, and Manna herself is subjected to a horrendous act, but all through that they never have sex. The relationship Jin presents is quite pure, but never puerile, based on one another’s attributes that aren’t simply sexually related. It is never boring, and with an ending that resembles Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, allows itself to have its cake and eat it to. I highly recommend you check this one out, even with a sometimes misleading gold sticker on the cover.

Rating: 5/5

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