Ha Jin has a new book out, called A Free Life. (He’s the author of the award-winning Waiting, which I read for a book club many years ago). This book is about a Chinese family – father, mother and young son – who emigrates to the U.S. to make a life here. The father – Nan – is not in love with his wife PingPing, but their dogged determination to life a successful life – the American Dream – keeps them together.
From The Boston Phoenix:
It’s a familiar story, but broken up into short chapters and narrated in Jin’s deadpan register, it takes on the jagged, mournful resonances of Jewish fiction of 50 years ago… Jin has made a calculated but effective decision to present their journey as a series of incremental changes made for practical reasons — and he’s able to maintain a certain narrative tension. You keep waiting for some catastrophe to come around the corner and sink them. A Free Life is not about American financial success, however, but about what gets lost when that’s pursued above all else. In Atlanta, Nan begins to write again, and his life of drudgery now seems like a false dream — the catastrophe that wasn’t waiting around the corner but has been sitting on top of him.
It is the simple, heartbreaking story of a family’s quest for solid ground — a story that will make you marvel at how much we are expected to infer from that familiar phrase “the American Dream.”
From Mostly Fiction:
Ha Jin, like his protagonist, is a poet and there are many parallels between his own life and that of Nan Wu. Despite the similarities, Ha Jin has said the book is not autobiographical—instead it is a portrait of a man that Jin can readily sympathize with.
There are a fair number of more telling passages in the book: Nan’s frustration at [his son’s] pursuit of a wayward American girl, and the Wus’ constant financial insecurity are well done. Particularly impressive is Nan’s brief visit back to China where he realizes the many contradictions in his immigrant life. When he struggles to somehow save a thousand dollars and give them to his parents, they wrongly assume he is loaded: “Everybody knows how easy it is to make money in America,” Nan’s mother tells him, “After you gave us the cash the day before yesterday, your dad said to me, ‘Damn, we’ve never had so much money in our whole life. See how easy it was for Nan to toss out a thousand dollars.’” His parents’ inability to see his immigrant struggles and desperation make for some beautiful scenes.
My recollection of Jin’s writing is that it can be understated almost to the point of being clinical. From what I’ve read in a few reviews of A Free Life, that may be the case with this book too. That wouldn’t be enough to keep me from reading it, though.