Waiting by Ha Jin

Synopsis from Amazon:

For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a devoted and ambitious doctor, has been in love with an educated, clever, modern woman, Mannu Wu. But, back in the traditional world of his home village lives the wife his family chose for him when he was young. Every year he visits her 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.

Waiting is not a story about love, it is a story about life. Life in a culture a world away, where there is no freedom and no emotion, only obligation and rules. The author does not try to explain anything, he merely paints the picture and leaves it for the reader to interpret. He does not explain, he simply tells matter of factly of the repressive conditions of existence within the Communist China. At the same time, the prose is so wonderfully informative that it draws you right into the world – what at first may seem shocking later becomes surprisingly expected. On top of this then, is a story about human connection. Which is perhaps, why this is a difficult book to gather coherent thoughts about – human relations are in no way simple. The resulting feeling upon closing the covers is not just any one feeling – it is actually an amalgamation of various responses conflicting with what has just been experienced. Such is life.

In the world of Lin And Manna we see a world where there are no choices, only acceptance of roles given, and it is difficult to imagine how human relationships can survive. Indeed, the rigid, almost formulaic existence of these people makes it seem they do not survive. In Lin Kong’s wife, Shuya, one sees the ultimate acceptance of a structured life that is not of her own doing. At first, such acceptance seems intolerable to the reader, we must by nature almost pity her, or even despise her, for not opposing or even questioning the enforced conditions of her life. In Lin Kong’s relationship with Manna Wu, the reader sees a hope for something more – as frightening as the idea of never experiencing real emotions is, so the delight in this discovery is reassuring. For the majority of the book, the individual in us screams for the sucess of this genuine relationship, even in the face of the dutiful wife. In time and with understanding of circumstances however, I think it is safe to say Shuya is possibly the easiest character to relate to. She is understated but an overarching presence throughout the novel – the defining factor of Lin’s relationship with Manna, and in the end, Shuya is what it all comes down to.

The story is pulled along primarily by the characters, which ultimately never become entirely loveable – perhaps they are just too human. Lin in indecisive and at times completely inconsiderate, so it is difficult to either respect or condemn him. Manna is entirely human, and as such it is not always easy to like her. What they all are, however, is compelling – this vision of a life so different from our own which will in many ways ring true with any reader. The ending is not one I expected. I had several ideas about what might happen – but what did happen was the most obvious outcome. In a way, it was the best. It was the most… reassuring. I think even disappointed readers will find a sense of comfort in it, and as for myself, I thought it was superb. In a way, it provides far more hope than any other ending could have. It is the most wonderful account of emotions, ties and living. This story, being set in another place and time, will fool you into thinking it is going to end like fiction, but it doesn’t. It ends like real life.

Rating: 9/10

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