Waiting, by Ha Jin, is not my usual style of novel. But one of my New Year's resolutions this year was to read more National Book Award or PEN/Faulkner Award Winners. Waiting won both, so I decided to put it first on my list.
Waiting is the story of a Chinese army doctor who is in an arranged marriage but has fallen in love with a nurse who is stationed alongside him. It begins when he has been waiting eighteen years for a divorce, to which his wife will not agree, and then travels back in time to take the reader through the early years of his marriage and the long quest of waiting for his divorce to be allowed and the life of his dreams to begin. The reader sees from the perspectives of Lin, the doctor, and Mannu, the nurse, through the back and forth that unfolds through these long years of waiting. By the book's third act, we are back to that eighteenth year.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the descriptive language used to set the scene of life in a Chinese village, countryside, city, and army camp throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. That is a world I know nothing about and never really gave any thought to, and while the descriptions are short and shy away from flowery language, the scene-setting is strong. I found that I would get engrossed in parts of the story and be envisioning them because of all the details included. For example, when Lin first travels home to visit his wife, this is part of the description:
Shuyu was making a jacket for their daughter, cutting a piece of black corduroy with a pair of scissors and a stub of French chalk. Two yellow moths were circling around the 25-watt bulb hanging from the papered ceiling. On the whitewashed wall, the shadow of the lamp cord severed the picture of a baby boy, fat and naked in a red bib, riding a large carp in billowing waves. On the mat-covered brick bed were two folded quilts and three dark pillows like huge loaves of bread. The sound of frogs croaking came from the pond at the southern end of the village while cicadas' chirping seeped in through the screen window. A bell tolled from the production brigade's office, summoning the commune members to a meeting.
It is almost all nouns and facts, but the vignette is set so that the reader can see and smell and feel it. I particularly loved the descriptions of Chinese foods throughout the book and their contrast to some of the stark descriptions of army and communist life, which are often included as a throw-away like they are in the paragraph above. It gave the book an eerie edge to its touching, personal narrative and made me feel almost as if I was living in that setting, where someone was always watching to see what others would say or do and looking over their shoulders.
I felt like this book had so many insights into the practical considerations of relationships and marriage, and how much they can influence one's choices even more than feelings do. In most young adult novels, if there are practical considerations at all to a relationship, they are seen as something to be overcome - if your parents don't like someone, you can try to convince them otherwise! But in Waiting, all the characters have practical things to consider about one another, such as their age, ability to earn money for the family, or even the rules that the army, government, or culture have about relationships. One aspect I really liked was when the characters would have internal dialogues and almost fight with themselves about this battle between practicality and feelings. Even though their situation was so far from my own, I found it relatable.
Waiting is strangely compelling, even though the story is somewhat predictable and half the book is built on the suspense of whether or not Lin will get a divorce, though we know from the beginning that he will not for the first eighteen years and then he should be able to. The story is not in the actions but in the everyday thoughts and feelings of these ordinary people, who each want what is best for themselves and their own lives while still wanting to be good people in the world. There are moments that are sad, brutal, and confusing, and the overall awareness of the disadvantages women in the story faced gave a mournful tone to even the happiest passages.
This is not a beach read by any means. It is an easy story to follow, and so it can be read in little bits, because you won't forget these characters and what they're going through. There are passages you will read a few times, just to put yourself in them and look around. And while it wasn't written for young adult readers, I found it accessible and, surprisingly, it actually made me more interested in Chinese culture and history without feeling like it was trying to.