Chinese-American Ha Jin’s novel “Waiting” is a delicately composed and intricate examination of character and disposition in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution. The novel follows the story of Lin, an army doctor who, for 18 years, tries to di-vorce his country wife every summer in order to marry his friend and colleague, Manna. As a whole, the work is a dynamic study of how the customs of ‘old’ China contradict with the manner-ism of a ‘new’ China on a very individualistic level; Ha Jin seems more concerned with how these conflicts affect relationships and self rather than the society at large. The novel is heartbreaking and yet completely relatable, lending keen insight on not only the effects of the Cultural Revolution but also on how humans are shaped by desire and morality.
“Waiting” is writ-ten in beautifully sparse and simple prose. It is clear that English is not Jin’s first language; yet rather than hurt the novel, this contributes to his clean writing style that is both appreciative and respectful towards the language. The reader glides through the narration, the years quietly slipping by al-most unnoticed. The quick passage of time does not feel rushed, however, because, like Lin and Manna, the reader is constantly waiting for something to happen. The action is extremely limited, making Jin’s novel unique in this regard. The novel is not driven by plot – indeed, the plot is almost irrelevant in the end – but by character development.
At first, the characters can appear frustratingly simplistic to the point where they might be viewed as unrealistic. Jin has a habit of describing his characters’ personalities in only one or two words at a time – they are often labeled as good, bad, tall, old, simple-minded – leading them to at first appear flat. Yet as the novel progresses, Jin layers multiple and often contradictory wants, feel-ings and thoughts onto his characters, until they slowly become captivating and dynamic.
The characters in “Waiting,” particularly Lin and Manna, are driv-en to confusion over what they should desire and what they do desire. In addition, throughout the novel their identities are constantly being shaped by constraints – by the new government, old tradition and personal morals. The novel is able to explore how China’s Cultural Revolution changed its citizens, giving the reader a unique perspective on the country’s history.
In the end, the characters are neither heroic nor very likeable. The primary character Lin is exceptionally passive and predictable and yet is still able to hurt everyone around him. Waiting is a testament to Jin’s skill as a writer; the characters he creates are so dynamic they are able to almost singlehandedly carry the novel and enthrall the audience.
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