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Book review: <i>Waiting</i> by Ha Jin

Nothing says love like waiting eighteen years for your boyfriend (who you’ve never even kissed) to divorce his wife and marry you. Really. Waiting is the heartbreaking tale of a man and a woman and another woman, living in China and making sure they adhere to the regulations of the communist party and the conventions of everyday life. Ha Jin manages to describe the utterly foreign (to me, anyway) experience of living in communist China, but he also manages to make it seem commonplace, interesting and alive all at once.

The content

Lin Kong is a doctor. He works and lives in a hospital in the city, and receives ten days annual leave every year—and for the last seventeen years he has been returning to Goose Village during his annual leave to try and convince is older wife Shuyu by arranged marriage for a divorce. This is because he has a girlfriend, Manna Wu, in the city, a nurse with whom he works closely and feels strongly about. Waiting follows the story of Lin Kong, Manna Wu, and Shuyu, artfully weaving the traditions and customs of both the old and the new China in a tale that spans twenty years of waiting and the future after that.

Waiting is set in modern China, but the rurality of the country settings combined with the fairly simple living conditions in communist China make the story seem timeless. There are a few cultural references that gently nudge you into the present, but that’s it. The writing is both minimalist and richly vivid at the same time, which is one of those rare treats in the reading experience. Jin knows how to say a lot with a little, and you can almost taste the cooking and see the concrete compound and the farms. It’s excellently written. The characters are well rounded and have a contradictory sense of humanity about them. No stereotypes here, the characters are wonderfully human. And the other really wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be about communist China while not making any judgments. Most people can’t resist having a little moral dig about all that isn’t democratic, and Jin makes communist China utterly normal within the context. If you want to judge based on what you read, you are welcome to... but Jin isn’t going do it for you. And I always respect those writers who are happy to acknowledge the reader’s intelligence and not spoon feed.

On the other hand, this book was DEPRESSING. Sure, there was humanity in there, but there was a lot of waiting (as the title suggests) and, you know, the relationship isn’t exactly a light, bright and joyful experience. Sure, there’s lots of human nature packed into the story, but Ha Jin isn’t looking for the best in people, and it’s this ability to make each of the characters uniquely human with all their faults and contradictions that probably contributes to its somewhat bleak ending. In fact, towards the end I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted to keep going (just with the book, it wasn’t THAT bad).

Who is this book for?

Like the different cultural perspective and period pieces? Okay, so this one isn’t a period piece, but close enough. Don’t read it if you’re having a Sylvia Plath moment, but if you’re feeling reasonably well balanced and want to read something good, if a little depressing, sure, it’s worth a look.

If you like this book, you would also like...

An Artist of the Floating World—has the Asian theme in the writing but is better written, in my opinion. Or, if you want something Chinese as opposed to Japanese, one of those Chinese period piece sagas like The Joy Luck Club or similar. Although I think I preferred Waiting.

In short

Title: Waiting
Author: Ha Jin
Publisher: Vintage International
ISBN: 0375706410
Year published: 2000
Pages: 308
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Fiction
Review Type: