Last summer, I visited a wonderful bookstore—actually a series of buildings filled to the rafters with books–called The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, a shoreline community. I bought Ha Jin’s 1999 National Book Award winner, “Waiting,” for four dollars. I could have taken the book out of the library, but this one was a keeper.
“Waiting” is a poignant and skillfully crafted story about the collision between love and obligation, duty to family and society and following one’s heart. Lin Kong is a doctor in the Chinese Army forced into a loveless marriage with the faithful Shuyu, whom his family chooses to take care of his sick mother and father. Kong sees Shuyu only briefly once a year, when he returns to their farming village on leave from the Army hospital in the city of Muji. At the Army hospital where Kong is deployed, he falls in love with Manna Wu, a nurse. Every year, he asks Shuyu for a divorce and at the last minute she decides to oppose the divorce and the court refuses to grant it.
Army regulations and societal norms prevent Kong and Wu from even leaving the hospital grounds together. Looming in the background is the changing Chinese society. The story begins in 1963 and covers 20 years, including the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, led a movement toward strict Communist doctrine and repression of capitalism, which triggered widespread factionalism and abuses of power.
Kong is a decent, but flawed, man who struggles with his emotions, even around Wu, whom he loves. His love affair with Wu exists in a sort of limbo, as does his emotional state. The law allows Kong to divorce Shuyu without her consent after 18 years and he is finally able to marry Wu. The cruelest of ironies awaits Kong as he learns first-hand about the wisdom of the saying that one should be careful what he wishes for.
Ha Jin is a gifted writer who blends character descriptions, setting and dialogue to paint a vivid picture of a society many of us have never seen. The human struggle and the agonizing wait give this story its momentum and power. “Waiting” is as much about the cataclysmic changes in Chinese society as it is about the story of a single relationship, but it is also a cautionary tale that tells us the heart doesn’t always know what it wants.