A FREE LIFE by Ha Jin (Random House), 672 pages, $34 cloth. Rating: NNN
Ha Jin wants to write the great Chinese-American novel, but this isn’t quite it.
A Free Life is, however, a consistently intriguing story about Chinese immigrants who struggle with money anxieties and intense identity issues.
When events in Tiananmen Square make it clear that he and his family can never return to Beijing, Nan Wu leaves academic life to develop a more financially prudent plan.
After stints in Boston and New York, he winds up in an Atlanta suburb where he opens a Chinese restaurant, buys a house and works hard to make a life in America, all the time yearning to become a poet while feeling thwarted by the demands of business and a loveless marriage.
Ha Jin’s previous novels, especially War Trash and Waiting, are unique in their evocation of life in Mao’s China. Spare prose that is totally devoid of flash takes us to places most Western readers have never been before. Reading Ha Jin feels like you’re being let in on some kind of international secret.
But what works in his novels set in China fails to hit the mark here. There are some vivid sequences. Nan’s encounter with a representative of the Chinese athletes at the Atlanta Olympics is very real, as is a political meeting of Chinese living in Atlanta. In fact, Nan’s persistent inner conflict between his passion for his country and his contempt for its leaders is consistently interesting. But the book has a diary-like feeling; its style feels somewhat flat.
And though it covers more than a decade of Nan’s American life, the book has a weak narrative arc. Only when Nan returns to visit China near the end does it turn into anything resembling a page-turner. And at over 650 pages, that’s a problem.
Then again, you won’t read fiction about this particular experience, written this well, anywhere else.