[Review] Waiting - Ha Jin

Title of Book:
Author: Ha Jin
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
Pages: 310

In Waiting, PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author Ha Jin draws on his intimate knowledge of contemporary China to create a novel of unexpected richness and feeling. This is the story of Lin Kong, a man living in two worlds, struggling with the conflicting claims of two utterly different women as he moves through the political minefields of a society designed to regulate his every move and stifle the promptings of his innermost heart.
For more than seventeen years, this devoted and ambitious doctor has been in love with an educated, clever, modern woman, Manna Wu. But back in the traditional world of his home village lives the wife his family chose for him when he was young—a humble and touchingly loyal woman, whom he visits in order to ask, again and again, for a divorce. In a culture in which the ancient ties of tradition and family still hold sway and where adultery discovered by the Party can ruin lives forever, Lin's passionate love is stretched ever more taut by the passing years. Every summer, his compliant wife agrees to a divorce but then backs out. This time, Lin promises, will be different.
Tracing these lives through their summer of decision and beyond, Ha Jin vividly conjures the texture of daily life in a place where the demands of human longing must contend with the weight of centuries of custom. Waiting charms and startles us with its depiction of a China that remains hidden to Western eyes even as it moves us with its piercing vision of the universal complications of love.
I didn’t remember why I picked this book while randomly browsing the bookstore because I honestly never heard of the author and specifically this title before. Even the premise of this book which I read on the cover doesn’t sound too appealing. But this book left me thinking about many things after finishing it.

Waiting is basically a story about two people who spent years waiting to be with each other. On the surface, it could be simply seen as an adultery story. Not too appealing, I know. As I read the book, the more I realize that there’s a deeper problem hidden in the story. To summarize this book, Waiting tells the story of Lin Kong, a male doctor working in an army hospital in the fictional city of Muji in China. He lived in Muji alone while his wife, Shuyu, and daughter, Hua, lived in the countryside. Lin’s marriage was arranged by his parents. He felt that his marriage was without love. Being away from his wife, Lin met and attracted to another woman in Muji, named Manna Wu. Manna is very different from his wife. She’s a nurse and more modern than Lin’s wife. Thinking that he’s in love with Manna, he attempted to divorce his wife. However, his wife refused to do so. So every year Lin would go home and file for a divorce and every year his wife would say no. The law at that time though, stated that he could divorce his wife without her consent if they’ve been separated after 18 years. Hence, the waiting.

From the synopsis, this book might sound boring. The pacing of this book is also so slow. But a lot can happen in between the 18 years of waiting. People change and I think that’s the center point of this book.. This book focuses more on the characters and how they grow and react to the challenge life throws at them.

You see, Lin Kong, the main character of this book, is actually a decent man. Although he’s attracted to another woman besides his wife, he wanted to have a proper divorce first before continuing to the next step and be more intimate with Manna. During those 18 years, a lot has happened that would make people reconsider but Lin and Manna could withstand those and they keep their promise to wait. Still, in my opinion what they have is not true love. It’s the anticipation that keeps building up over the year that keep their relationship going. Also, I think Lin Kong is confused. I don’t think he’s ever experienced love so he mistook his feelings for Manna as love. Without spoiling the plot, this is reflected in how the book ends. He was waiting for so long only to realize that what he has been waiting for is not what he wants after all.

While researching about this book, I found out that this book is inspired by true story which Jin heard from his wife while visiting an army hospital in China. The setting and the way of living described in this book apparently really happened back then in China. Of all the aspects of this book, this is what fascinates me the most. When I was a kid, I often heard stories from adults around me about how difficult and how restrictive it was to live in China. Many people from my country went to look for jobs in China and that’s why there were so many stories about the country. I didn’t imagine that the stories are true. According to this book, if it really is based on the real condition back then, it is true.

I know for some people the adultery theme itself is a red flag for them. However, after reading the book I can attest that though it plays a big part in the book, it is not the only thing offered in this book. I don’t justify what Lin Kong did; to me, Lin Kong’s story is more like a cautionary tale. All in all, if you can get past that, you might want to try reading this book.

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