The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin is this week’s New Title Tuesday recommendation because it is timely, occasionally darkly humorous, and provides insight to the consequences of acting on principle and the limits of a free press.
Summary: New York, 2005. Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a fiercely principled reporter at a small news agency that produces a website read by Chinese all over the world. Danlin’s explosive exposés have made him legendary among readers–and feared by Communist officials. But his newest assignment may be his undoing: investigating his ex-wife, Yan Haili, an unscrupulous novelist who has willingly become a pawn of the Chinese government in order to realize her dreams of literary stardom.
Haili’s scheme infuriates Danlin both morally and personally–he will do whatever it takes to expose her as a fraud. But in outing Haili, he is also provoking her powerful political allies, and he will need to draw on all of his journalistic cunning to come out of this investigation with his career–and his life–still intact.
The author shares some similarities with his protagonist. Both have lived and worked in China before moving to the United States and away from the Communist controlled media. But relocation and US citizenship doesn’t eliminate struggles navigating language barriers and confusing customs or questions of cultural identity.
As Christian Science Monitor reviewer Rayyan Al-Shawaf wrote, “The Boat Rocker isn’t some frenzied, Trump-style stab at literary fearmongering. And with a transplanted Chinese as its protagonist, one for whom – like Jin himself – China remains chief politico-cultural frame of reference, this novel will hardly appeal to the chest-thumping nativist crowd. Nevertheless, there’s no way around it: the Chinese are coming. Feng Danlin, the unassuming yet mulishly principled figure at the heart of an outwardly nondescript story with a powerful moral core, will tell you.”
The characters are unique even though the protagonist experiences the predictable push-back for his allegiance to the principles. When the fictional vice consul at the Chinese Embassy asks Danlin to abandon the expose, Danlin says he “is obligated to expose lies” and speak “for the week and the voiceless.” The vice consul, however, is not a stereotypical government lackey but an intellectual who takes pride in his reasoning to serve his country “unconditionally” and points out Danlin’s reckless handling of the story about Haili’s novel.
I recommend The Boat Rocker for readers on both sides of the political spectrum because it provides a perspective that is thought provoking and timely.
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Jin:
Waiting : This is the story of Lin Kong, a man living in two worlds, struggling with the conflicting claims of two utterly different women as he moves through the political minefields of a society designed to regulate his every move and stifle the promptings of his innermost heart.
For more than seventeen years, this devoted and ambitious doctor has been in love with an educated, clever, modern woman, Manna Wu. But back in the traditional world of his home village lives the wife his family chose for him when he was young–a humble and touchingly loyal woman, whom he visits in order to ask, again and again, for a divorce. In a culture in which the ancient ties of tradition and family still hold sway and where adultery discovered by the Party can ruin lives forever, Lin’s passionate love is stretched ever more taut by the passing years. Every summer, his compliant wife agrees to a divorce but then backs out. This time, Lin promises, will be different.
A Free Life is the widely-acclaimed, award-winning author of Waiting and War Trash, comes a novel that takes his fiction to a new setting: 1990s America. We follow the Wu family–father Nan, mother Pingping, and son Taotao–as they fully sever their ties with China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and begin a new, free life in the United States.
At first, their future seems well-assured–Nan’s graduate work in political science at Brandeis University would guarantee him a teaching position in China–but after the fallout from Tiananmen, Nan’s disillusionment turns him towards his first love, poetry. Leaving his studies, he takes on a variety of menial jobs while Pingping works for a wealthy widow as a cook and housekeeper. As Nan struggles to adapt to a new language and culture, his love of poetry and literature sustains him through difficult, lean years.