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I am a: writer, academic, lecturer of English in a public university.
Waiting by Ha Jin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
By definition, Ha Jin’s gorgeous novel Waiting is suspenseful. It is a book about waiting. Most of the book is spent waiting for Lin Kong to win a divorce from his wife Shuyu, who he married through an arrangement, so that he may marry his lover (who he has never touched, out of loyalty to Shuyu and to his country’s expectations), Manna Wu. Every summer, he returns home from his work as an army doctor for vacation and to get the divorce. And every summer, his wife agrees until they are before the judge.
Wed this waiting to an ever worsening oppressive Communist China, as the country grows more restrictive, conveniently to those in power, as the book progress through years of waiting, and you have a book that is deliciously disquiet. Jin offers a historical novel that is not heavy-handed in history or cultural lessons, though authentic in offering relevant references when needed. That is, I don’t feel like I’m getting a history of China, but a wonderful love story which is set in China. And since both Lin and Manna are well-read intellectuals, their affair is smart in many ways, encouraging readers to consider all aspects of love and friendship and—what is so nice in this traditional courtship—equality.
The writing throughout is gorgeous. It’s candy. I was first introduced to Ha Jin through his short story “The Bridegroom,” rich in its simplicity and dense in its subject matter (also set in China, but in more recent times). Jin is reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee in his use of a muted narration—not unsympathetic, but unassuming—which allows the reader more of a part in interpreting the story being presented. That almost deadpan narration just builds the suspense because it does not give away anything!
For example of the work the narration does in the book, Jin gives conflicting scenes, or contradicting scenes, of situations in Waiting that may make the reader question Lin’s motives. Once, when he is home to ask for a divorce (we accompany him on many trips home), he is alone with his infant daughter, Hua, who tries to nurse at his chest. This, of course, delights him and the scene is so domestic, one may question his desire to quit his marriage. Add to this doubt of incompatibility, which he claims is there, Lin explains the incident to Shuyu and that scene, too, smacks of a functional home. Then, Lin Kong reflects on that conversation he shares with his wife, and that visit home:
Though Shuyu and Lin slept in different rooms at night, he enjoyed being at home, especially playing with his daughter. He liked the home-cooked food, most of which was fresh and tasty. The multigrain porridge, into which Shuyu always urged him to put some brown sugar though she wouldn’t take any herself, was so soft and delicious that he could eat three bowls at a meal without feeling stuffed. The eggs sautéed with leeks or scallions would make his belches redolent of the dish even hours later. The steamed string beans seasoned with sesame oil and mashed garlic gave him a feeling of ease and freedom, because he would never dare touch such a homely dish in the hospital [where he worked] for fear of garlicky breath. What is more, it was so relaxing to be with his family… . When their black rooster announced daybreak, Lin would wake up, then go back to sleep again. The morning snooze was the sweetest to him. He had been home four days already. If only he could stay for a whole month.
Here, there is no mention of divorce. There is no mention of Manna Wu, either. And that scene of domesticity lends to the angst and frustration the reader must be feeling about this awkward and non-physical love triangle at this point of the book. Furthermore, Lin seems, very often, very willing to give up his lover. At one point, when there was a chance that Manna could mate with a higher ranking army officer, Lin helped her to respond to that officer’s courtship. He questioned his actions, “Now, though Manna might part from Lin for good, why didn’t he feel any deep resentment? How come he was so benign and so large-hearted?” But he justified his actions by stating he “was a better-educated man, reasonable and gentle, different from those animal-like men driven by lust and selfishness” (153). I’d agree with that answer, too, and I will also say that his reasonableness and gentleness is a part of why he waits, which is almost immediately apparent in the novel.
Although on edge while reading “Waiting,” I did not want the book to end. I lingered on the last twenty or so pages. Wonderful ending. Beautiful book.
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