By Ha Jin

Pantheon. 308 pp. $24

Reviewed by Gregory Feeley

Although Ha Jin has published two volumes of poems and an earlier novel, until this fall he was best known for his short stories, which have been appearing in best-of-the-year anthologies since the mid-'90s. Most of these have been gathered in two collections, Ocean of Words (1996) and Under the Red Flag (1997), which won prizes but were issued by small publishers and received relatively little attention. With the publication of Waiting, which just won the National Book Award, Jin's fiction seems poised to find a wider readership.

Jin (a pen name for Xhuefei Jin, who teaches English at Emory University in Atlanta) has so far devoted himself to a single theme, the life of ordinary people (usually rural peasants) in China between the '60s and early '80s, with an emphasis on their suffering at the hands of corrupt petty officials. The university teacher in the story "Saboteurs" protests when some rural policemen carelessly toss their tea grounds on his shoes, and is arrested and subjected to humiliations that eventually encompass even his hapless lawyer. Characters in other stories suffer hideous consequences for violating sexual conventions, and the figure of the mild-mannered but upright man who refuses to bribe officials, then unwisely protests when he is passed over for a new apartment or minor promotion, recurs throughout the stories.

Waiting is set in a slightly different world: the army hospital of a large city, where the personnel (especially the physicians, who are likely to be officers and Party members) enjoy slightly less circumscribed lives. Lin Kong, who left his village to join the army and was lucky enough to go to medical school, spends his career a full day's journey away from his village and family, whom he is able to visit once a year. His attempts to divorce his wife (an arranged marriage, amicable but loveless) and become engaged to Manna Wu, a nurse who hopes to marry him, occupy most of the 23 years over which the novel's action proceeds.

Jin's prose is limpid and straightforward, unadorned by any stylistic embellishment beyond the occasional simile. The opening sentence -- "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu" -- begins the story at once, and we are told without preamble how Lin Kong has long sought a divorce from his wife, who agrees each year but then changes her mind when they are at the courthouse. Other details are quickly filled in, a picture of three unhappy people in early middle age. Jin then goes back 20 years -- it is the novel's only formal literary device -- and tells the story from the beginning.

Although simple in outline, the conflict at the heart of Jin's novel quickly takes on an obdurate complexity. The reader who assumes that the characters' problems are the product of unjust divorce laws is swiftly disabused: The uncomplaining Shuyu, who nursed Lin Kong's aging parents in their last years and has raised their daughter alone, asks nothing of her husband save that he not discard her. Lin Kong, who was pressured to marry his wife by his parents, has faithfully supported Shuyu, whom he has never lived with for any extended period; but he finds her -- illiterate and unsophisticated, with bound feet -- "absolutely unpresentable outside his home village" -- and has never allowed her to visit him where he lives.

And Manna Wu, who after being abandoned by an earlier fiance has spent most of her adult life waiting for Lin Kong to extricate himself from his marriage, has been driven by social circumstances -- an unmarried Chinese woman is considered an "old maid" at 28, and she has placed her career at risk simply by being seen with Lin -- to a desperation that has coarsened and embittered her.

Eschewing melodrama and narrative surprises, Jin's progression of events from 1963 to the mid-'80s conveys a sharp sense of life as it is actually lived: close-focused, irresolute and contingent. Jin's prose gives the sense that he has imagined his characters' dialogue in the actual Chinese, so that his prose reads at times like a very faithful translation (a sign reads: "The Best Delicacy -- Donkey Meat on Earth like Dragon Meat in Heaven!"). This is mostly a virtue, although at times -- as when a mentally disturbed woman jeers at a rape victim by muttering "Self-delivery" within her hearing -- we yearn for an idiomatic rather than a literal rendition.

Waiting shows points of similarity with Jin's first novel, last year's In the Pond, which also involves an unprepossessing man who discovers that obeying Party strictures will leave him with nothing. But while In the Pond is a wry comedy -- Jin's protagonist eventually matching his superiors in roguishness and ultimately prevailing -- Waiting is more poignant, the first work of Jin's to elicit a wide range of responses from the reader rather than simple horror or rueful amusement. More subtle and complex than his earlier fiction, it is his best work to date, a moving meditation on the effects of time upon love.

Gregory Feeley is a novelist and critic who regularly reviews contemporary fiction.