A plainspoken, even reticent narrative illuminates the complex loyalties of a Chinese-American spy, who considers himself a patriot of both countries.
As a novel of espionage, the latest from the prizewinning author (Waiting, 1999, etc.) satisfies like the best of John le Carré, similarly demystifying and deglamorizing the process of gathering information and the ambiguous morality that operates in shades of gray. But it’s plain that this novel is about more than the plight of one spy, who must forsake his Chinese family in order to embed himself as a master translator for the CIA, becoming “China’s ear to the heartbeat of the United States.” In the process, he starts a second family, which knows nothing about the first, raising a daughter with his Irish-American wife. He also has a mistress, a Chinese-American woman to whom he relates and responds in the way he can’t with his American wife and to whom he entrusts his diaries. Thus, the issues of love and loyalty that permeate the novel aren’t merely political, but deeply personal. Narrating the novel is Lilian Shang, a scholar and the adult daughter of the late Gary Shang, convicted of treason in America, abandoned by his Chinese handlers, who receives the diaries from his lifelong mistress. Chapters in which Lilian learns about her father’s first family in China and attempts to connect with them and bridge their related pasts alternate with chapters from Gary’s perspective, in which he leaves his homeland and his family and earns (and betrays?) the trust of his adopted country, one in which the freedom of jazz and the mournful tone of Hank Williams speak to him deeply. “The two countries are like parents to me,” he insists at his trial. “They are like mother and father, so as a son I can’t separate the two and I love them both.” Lilian ultimately discovers that such conflicting loyalties run deep in the bloodlines of her extended family.
Subtle, masterful and bittersweet storytelling that operates on a number of different levels.