In 2002 (or thereabouts), Ha Jin came to my college to talk about his story collection, The Bridegroom. I remember liking the stories, but not feeling very strongly about them. I also remember liking Jin himself and the way that he talked about the difficulties and rewards of writing.
Fast-forward to last week- I'm deep into his latest work, A Map of Betrayal, and I'm wanting to love it and waiting to love it but....I'm not loving it. Here, Jin tells the story of Lillian Shang, whose father Gary was a spy for China during his entire life in the U. S. (1950s-1980s). The novel flips back and forth between an account of Gary's time as a mole in the CIA and Lillian's attempts to meet the Chinese side of her family for the first time.
In both narratives, Jin evokes the loneliness and rootlessness that come with living in a foreign country and not knowing what happened to family members caught up in the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution. Even Lillian, the child of an American mother and Chinese father, feels incomplete until she finally meets her half-sister and other family members from Gary's first family, left behind in China.
I wanted to love this novel because I like Ha Jin's understated and precise style. Also, I've been reading a lot recently about the Cultural Revolution and thought this fictional account of a Chinese spy would be a fascinating look at the country from a different perspective. Alas, neither of these things made a different. The phrase "lacks soul" jumped into my mind as I was wondering why I couldn't get into this novel, and I still feel that way. Yes, Gary story is written like an objective report, which parallels Gary's own reports to China about American plans and strategies. Such narratives, though, do not need to be flat, prosaic things, however.
Even Lillian's narrative lacked depth, and her meetings with her half-sister and nephew, which should have been emotionally powerful, were unimpressive.
I finished this book, despite not liking it early on, because it's only 280 pages and I thought it might get really good at any moment. That didn't happen. Nonetheless, I would like to read more Ha Jin in the future- perhaps this book was an anomaly.