As you read Ha Jin’s latest novel, “A Map of Betrayal” (Pantheon Books), you’ll find yourself divided between two main characters. Deciding which one you will identify with — the Chinese father Gary Shang or daughter Lilian Shang — is one of the central pleasures of reading this Forrest Gump-like novel. The story spans four decades, going through 20th century historical events in Sino-American relations. Gary plays critical yet unwilling parts in these larger events. His story is interspersed with Lilian’s, who uncovers her father’s secret past.
The story begins with Lilian, a professor visiting China, who discovers her father’s diary after his death. Lilian has recently reconnected with her father’s mistress Nellie, which also happens to be her mother. This is only the beginning of the betrayal. In China, she wants to find her family, visiting the village of her father’s first wife. She befriends her half-sister, via a graduate student translator, and learns about the difficulties of being a single mother in a traditional family where men are growing scarcer and scarcer.
Lilian’s story is told in alternate chapters with her father’s. His story begins 40 years prior, when he began his work as a government spy, which takes him to Beijing, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and eventually Washington D.C. In America, Lilian’s half-brother will follow in his father’s footsteps, who is in a troubled relationship with a pregnant girlfriend and looking to do some business.
The story charts new territory for Boston-based Jin with the development of a domestic storyline set in America. Similar to his novel “A Free Life,” both novels describe with poetic detail the struggles of a family building a home together. Unlike the Chinese family of “A Free Life,” a mixed-race couple is the focus of “A Map of Betrayal.” Gary’s second wife is a server at a diner he frequents. After being separated from his Chinese family, he lives in limbo, not knowing when the Chinese government will allow a reunion. Gary must keep up the appearance of a normal American life to keep working for the CIA. He takes government secrets, including Nixon’s plans to put a wedge between Taiwan and China, to his handler in Hong Kong, and later to a Catholic priest, while pocketing the cash in a bank account. Meanwhile, Lilian wonders if the past might be repeating itself with her half-brother, who asks her husband to buy illegal equipment.
The novel moves with the force of history, unstoppable and suspenseful. While the military history felt labored, Jin weaves real historical events so deftly that they hit close to home. Ha illustrates the challenges of having a foot in two worlds: blindly loyal to a faraway place, while growing more attached to a new one.
This is a powerful novel where the most innocent and earnest characters are involved on the world stage. Sometimes, it feels like they have a choice, but in the end, they are at the mercy of larger forces. Perhaps, all we can do is listen and warn.