First collection of short fiction in nine years from expatriate novelist Ha Jin (A Free Life, 2007, etc.).
All set in Flushing, N.Y., all concerned with the Chinese immigrant’s experience in America, these 12 stories are unified in geography and theme, uneven in richness and depth. The opening piece, “The Bane of the Internet,” is one of the slightest, suggesting in four pages that the speed and amount of communication offered by e-mail aren’t necessary benefits for a Chinese immigrant with relatives back home. Many other stories also resemble fables or parables, with generic titles and plot twists reminiscent of O. Henry. “Beauty” shows that quality to be not what it appears, and not merely skin deep. “Choice” concerns a series of (you guessed it) choices, as a graduate student opts for the humanities and deprives himself of the support his parents would have offered for a more professionally focused education. He finds a tutoring job to pay the bills and is torn between his teenaged pupil and her mother, an attractive young widow, but the climactic choice turns out not to be his. “Shame” invites the reader to find autobiography within its narrative, as a student’s changing relationship with his former professor inspires a first novel in English. Generational tension bristles through “Children as Enemies” and “In the Crossfire,” as elders prove resistant to the assimilation that younger Chinese-Americans are more likely to embrace. The title story is the most powerful, as an immigrant monk on the verge of suicide finds despair leading to redemption. “You can always change,” he learns. “This is America, where it’s never too late to turn over a new page.”
Rich imagery—“drizzle swayed in the wind like endless tangled threads,” “the streetlights were swimming in my eyes”—displays the author’s poetic gifts, but some of these tales belabor the obvious.