12 Jul / A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin [in Shelf Awareness]
Powerlessness pervades Ha Jin’s perceptive A Song Everlasting, as his protagonist leaves fame and familiarity in one country to flee toward ambiguity and adaptation in another. Freedom, Yao Tian reasons, is his driving motive. National Book Award-winner Jin (A Map of Betrayal), notable for empathically crafting lives from meticulously observed details, creates another quiet, more passive-than-not antihero caught between China and the U.S.
Once upon a time, Tian was a famous singer, the lead tenor in the People’s Ensemble, a Chinese company renowned nationally and abroad. His wife, Shuna, is a rising university history professor; their 13-year-old middle-grade daughter, Tingting, is about to apply for entry into a tony Beijing prep school. At 37, Tian’s career seemed impressively satisfying, his and his family’s lasting comfort all but guaranteed.
Following a scheduled company performance in New York City, Tian encounters an old Beijing friend he hasn’t seen in a decade. Yabin has since emigrated to the U.S. He presents Tian with a lucrative singing engagement – this time solo, as part of a concert to celebrate Taiwan’s (not China’s) National Day, which requires Tian to extend his U.S. visit by a few days. The generous fee, Tian realizes, would help offset Tingting’s anticipated tuition increases. Tian’s director isn’t pleased, but after half-hearted warnings, he’s not forbidden. And so Tian stays, performs, and returns home.
The disciplinary consequences become immediately apparent. But when he’s asked to surrender his passport, Tian uses all his connections to flee to New York, initially convinced that Shuna and Tingting will eventually join him. Expectations, however, are not reality. A Party messenger attempts to buy Tian’s cooperative, silent return to China for millions, but Tian’s refusal leaves him untethered. Without a valid passport, he’s no longer Chinese but he’s certainly not American – that will still require multiple challenges over many years. “Now I can see why lots of people prefer security to freedom,” he writes to Shuna. The decades pass: his career flounders, he moves, relationships change, he adjusts as best as he can. After surviving so much, by middle-age, “life had become uneventful.” That peace, perhaps, might be accomplishment enough.
Jin’s narrative here isn’t his strongest – prolonged over hundreds of pages, Tian’s meandering, passive acceptance, especially, grows cumbersome. For Jin’s most devoted readers, however, his signature ability to engage and expand his characters through acute, forthright observations will not disappoint. Once again, Jin provides a meaningful everyman tale beyond borders and cultures.
Shelf Talker: In this meticulously observed novel, National Book Award-winning Ha Jin’s protagonist abandons his life in China as a famous singer for the illusory promise of freedom on U.S. shores.