Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

A Free Life

Posted by nliakos on November 2, 2008

by Ha Jin (narrated by Jason Ma) 2007 BBC Audiobooks America

A Free Life chronicles the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States.  Nan Wu was in graduate school in the Boston area when the Tiananmen Square event in 1989 prompted the United States to make it easy for Chinese students to remain in the U.S.  The book follows Nan, his wife, and their son as they separate (Nan goes to New York City, where he becomes a chef) and then reunite and move to the Atlanta area, where they buy a Chinese restaurant, the Gold Wok.  Nan considers himself a poet but rarely has the time or the inspiration to write.  In the end, however, he returns to his dream of writing poetry.

The book has an autobiographical feel to it.  I don’t know anything about the author other than that he, like Nan, grew up in China and now lives in the United States and writes in English.  Nevertheless, I constantly had the sense that he was describing his own travails and triumphs, especially where poetry is concerned.  Ha Jin is known as a writer of fiction, whereas Nan Wu resisted suggestions that he turn to fiction as “easier” than writing poetry in a new language.  A Free Life gave Ha Jin an opportunity to publish his own poetry as that of his character.

The style of writing is peculiar.  Jin says that Nan read dictionaries and learned idioms; another character in the book was always misusing idioms.  To me, the book sometimes felt like an ESL idiom textbook.  These textbooks present a group of idioms and then contrive a text which features all of them–with varying degrees of success.  That is how A Free Life often felt to me.  Idioms were used with abandon, but not always in ways that I, a native speaker/writer, would have used them, and sometimes in ways that seemed awkward.  Had I been Jin’s editor, I would have advised him to go easy on the idioms.  On the other hand, English is not the possession of its native speakers in America, England, and Australia only.  Sometimes a non-native writer can give the English language a delicious twist that becomes part of the charm of the book (I am thinking in particular of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy).

Another strange characteristic of A Free Life is how the chapters ended.  I expect a chapter ending either to provide closure to the chapter or to link to the following chapter in such a way that the reader will have a hard time putting the book down (think: The Da Vinci Code!).  Many chapters in A Free Life just stop…. sometimes on a note that relates neither to the chapter that is ending or to the next one.  I often felt that the book needed an editor to tighten it up.

Despite my complaints, I stuck with the book until the end because it gave me insights into the lives of immigrants in the U.S.–particularly Chinese immigrants–and because I came to like the characters and to want to know how things turned out for them.

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2 Responses to “A Free Life”

  1. Maryanne said

    What an excellent review! I concur with many of your observations. Although I really enjoyed the book and empathized with the various characters, I wondered why the author keep writing Nan’s speech rather phonetically. I finally decided that it was to emphasize that even when he was making erudite statements, his foreign accent would always affect others’ perceptions of him.

    Keep the reviews coming!

  2. Interesting! Since I “read” A Free Life on audiobook, I was not aware of the phonetic spelling. What kept jumping out at me were the constant and sometimes inappropriate idioms.

    I’ve observed that many phonetic spellings in novels reflect the normal pronunciation of any educated native speaker. These spellings seem to be used to indicate the speaker’s lack of education–maybe that if s/he were writing, that’s how s/he would have written the word. I can’t think of a specific example, but I am sure you have noticed it too.

    Thanks for reading the review, and for your comment!

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