Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

Ha Jin has been considered a major American fiction writer ever since the publication of his first book of short stories, Oceans of Words , in 1996. His work has won major writing awards, including the PEN/Hemingway prize, the Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction, the National Book Award, and the...

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Ha Jin has been considered a major American fiction writer ever since the publication of his first book of short stories, Oceans of Words, in 1996. His work has won major writing awards, including the PEN/Hemingway prize, the Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His books have been reviewed in academic journals such as World Literature Today, and in popular magazines with widespread circulation like Entertainment Weekly. In less than a decade, Ha Jin has earned a reputation as one of the most important voices in Sino-American literature.

His most successful book to date has been his second novel, Waiting, a love story about a Chinese army doctor who returns to his home village every year for seventeen years to beg for a divorce from his wife so that he can remarry. That book was the first ever to win both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. John McNally, writing in The Progressive, noted its combination of literary antecedents and cultural insight when he explained that Waiting "appears as if from a time capsule: It's a novel of manners in the tradition of Henry James, except that the backdrop is New China, and the manners are prescribed (and often enforced) by the Chinese government.’’ McNally recognized the weakness of Waiting as being that it ‘‘sags under the weight of cliché. Letters bring rays of hope; characters' faint smiles play around their lips. The result is a world that can be read about but never fully experienced—which is a pity, since Jin's world is a complex and fascinating one.’’

In World Literature Today, Jeffrey C. Kinkley saw Waiting as a part of the "Ha Jin phenomenon.'' Kinkley compared it to Jin's one earlier novel, In the Pond, noting that it lacked the ‘‘irony and bitter humor'' of the earlier book and that it was "unpretentious.’’ In the end, Kinkley characterized it positively but unenthusiastically as ‘‘a good read.’’

‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ was published in the collection The Bridegroom in the same year that Waiting came to national attention. Reviewers generally commented on the stories' deadpan prose style, a mark of simplicity used to draw attention to the complex lives led by Jin's characters. A review in Publishers Weekly, for instance, notes that the stories in The Bridegroom "attain their significant cumulative effect through sparse prose penetrated by wit, insight and a fine sense of irony.’’ That review pointed out the way Jin's characters ‘‘illustrate the ways in which hardship, lack of living space, inflexible social rules and government quotas thwart happiness.’’

Nancy Pearl, writing in Booklist, noted that The Bridegroom would be welcomed by "fans of Waiting because the two books present similar styles and themes. Altogether,’’ Pearl concluded, ‘‘this is a fine collection, sure to be in demand by fans of literary fiction.’’ A brief review by Bianca Perlman in Entertainment Weekly gave The Bridegroom a rating of "A," pointing out that ‘‘Ha Jin's spare prose, subtle wit, and surprising plot twists make for a read that is both quick and memorable.’’ Library Journal reviewer Shirley N. Quan recommended The Bridegroom for "most larger public, academic, and Asian literature collections,’’ noting that ‘‘Jin uses this collection to exhibit his strong writing and storytelling skills with his laconic use of words.’’

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