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Waiting, by Ha Jin.

December 14, 2014

Waiting, by Ha Jin.  Vintage (2000), Paperback, 308 pages.


An unusual novel by a man from China about people caught in uneven social changes in his country and forced to wait so long that their dreams have faded.


Lin is a doctor, originally from a village, who married a woman there to insure that his parents would be cared for in their old age. His parents both die, and he falls in love with and wants to marry Manna, a woman he met at the hospital in the small city where he works. For eighteen years, he returns to the village to divorce his wife so he can marry Manna, but she thwarts his attempts. Meanwhile Lin and Manna must wait until enough time has passed that her refusal to divorce is no longer relevant. Living in dormitory conditions with strict rules, the couple remains chaste for the years of waiting. Although the book’s ending holds out a ray of hope, their long frustration has a cost.


Ha Jin was born and raised in Communist China and came to the United States almost thirty years ago to attend college. He has remained here teaching in college and writing award-winning poetry and prose. Waiting earned the National Book Award in 1999.


This novel has merit, and others may like it more than I did. While Jin never makes the Communist government as the villain, he does reveal it as arbitrary and full of graft.Jin provides rich detail into life in both towns and countryside; details that reveal how differently people are expected to behave from those in other countries.  His descriptions contribute to the texture of book and to the tediousness and frustration of his characters’ long wait. Perhaps their situation is meant to say something about the wait of the Chinese people to see the fruit of their sacrifices and pain. Perhaps Jin is commenting on the situation of all of us who give up too much in the hope of future rewards.


Writing about the failure of hope can be depressing, however. I had trouble liking or identifying with Jin’s characters, especially as they and their relationship deteriorated over time. Their choices were too different than mine. I found the book grim, and fought to avoid absorbing its negativity. The last book I had read was Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light, a book which had at least as much pain and tragedy as Waiting.  In it,however, Danticat and her characters transcend their pain in a way that Jin and his characters do not. While Waiting has merit, it does not offers the healing power of beautiful language.


I recommend this book primarily to those interested in daily life in Communist China.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2014 2:00 pm

    I remember reading this a few years ago and being somewhat underwhelmed by it (or rather, overwhelmed by the tedium). I agree with you that the author was trying to have the reader feel the weight of waiting as his characters had, but you need to give your audience a slip of something – what would be the point of fiction, otherwise?

  2. December 14, 2014 8:44 pm

    Oh I loved this book. I think I like slow books. I found it melancholic and moving. The passage of time, the relationships caught up in old traditions. Loved it! It’s one of those books that has stuck with me long after others have faded. Must go find my notes on it.

    • December 15, 2014 11:01 am

      Have you read any of Colm Toibin’s books, Sue? ‘Brooklyn’ is my favourite, but ‘Nora Webster’ is a pretty good slow book too.

      • December 15, 2014 3:06 pm

        I have Brooklyn, a Jessica, but I’ve only read The master which I suspect may be a bit different. I’m keen to read more.

  3. December 14, 2014 8:46 pm

    I was not too impressed by Waiting either.

  4. residentjudge permalink
    December 15, 2014 3:35 pm

    I read this in 2000 too, and I’ve had to consult my reading journal to see what I thought about it. I obviously thought that it was “deft and light in incorporating observations about the cultural revolution without losing emphasis on the characters” and I awarded it 8/10 on my dodgy rating scale. So I must have liked it, although I must admit to not remembering much about it!

  5. December 16, 2014 9:38 am

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your reactions to this book. I love the conservation. And I am so glad that others liked it more than I did. I am not surprised. I saw its merit, but simply didn’t like the tedium. I believe that books need to include pain, but I deal with it better if it not so unrelenting and boring.

  6. aartichapati permalink
    December 17, 2014 10:51 am

    Oh, no! I bought this at a library book sale. Now I have zero desire to read it. I can’t handle such weighty depression.

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