You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat.
Waiting, by Ha Jin
Since I was a child, I have loved historical fiction. I remember especially poring over those young adult novels that describe the life of a young royal woman, whether Elizabeth I or Marie Antoinette. I felt a kinship with the fact that despite our obviously different lives, that they seemed to have the same problems that I (and most young women, I’d imagine) experience. I still find that the most comforting about historical fiction – that no matter the era or location, the human condition remains the same.
I picked up Ha Jin’s Waiting on a whim, and I’m glad I did. The novel takes place over several decades and tells the story of Lin Kong, an army doctor at a city hospital who has spent almost 20 years separated from his wife, Shuyu, who is raising their daughter alone in the countryside. Lin’s girlfriend, Manna, is a nurse at the same hospital, and urges him to divorce Shuyu year after year, but he is unable to for 17 years due to a law that requires both spouses to agree to a divorce.
What I enjoyed about the novel is that despite its setting and somewhat absurd premise, Waiting is very relatable. I was raised in a somewhat conservative, traditional Asian household whose values often contrasted with the North American ideals I faced every day at school. From a young age, I was trained to be quiet, to obey, and to make do with what I was given, while my peers were often more exuberant, more outspoken, more willing to demand what they thought they deserved. I’ve seen many reviews of this novel that complain about Lin’s passivity and his lack of drive. While Lin is certainly a passive person in terms of personality, it is clear that his culture and environment (China in the 1960s) contribute to his passivity. After all, it’s his culture that creates his problem (bound by familial duty to marry Shuyu, an unattractive older woman) and his environment that prolongs his situation (the law that both spouses must agree to a divorce until the 18th year of separation).
More than Lin, though, I was interested in the character of Manna. Manna is a surprisingly modern and relatable character despite the times that she lives in. She is an unmarried (for the majority of the novel), professional, intelligent woman. I love that the novel does not paint Manna into the cliche of the icy professional woman, which we see too often in fiction nowadays. Instead, Manna is both professional and career-focused but also emotional and uncertain about what she wants out of life. As an unmarried woman, she often experiences and is irrevocably hurt by sexual harassment from her male colleagues. These parts were, to me, difficult to read, but also realistic and relevant to today.
YES OR NO?: YES. Waiting is an enjoyable, short novel that paints an (as far as I know) an accurate portrayal of life in communist China. It does what my favorite historical fiction pieces do: provide insight into a different time and place, while exploring the lives of characters that are relatable to a reader today.