The Humanity of Ha Jin’s “A Good Fall”6 min read

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Despite the inconsistency of this book, there are glimmers that supply the reader with the kind of satisfaction usually provided by the author’s work. In “A Temporary Love,” a man and woman live together in New York, simulating a marriage, while their respective spouses remain in China. The arrival of the woman’s husband is the beginning of the end for both herself and her lover. “Every Chinese has so much baggage of the past, too heavy for me to share and carry. I want to live freely and fearlessly with nothing to do with the past,” her lover observes. “I’ve come to believe that one has to get rid of the past to survive. Dump your past and don’t even think about it, as if it never existed.”

A homecare worker finds herself sexually harassed by an elderly charge in “A Pension Plan.” Despite the malfeasance, she agrees to pretend to be his wife in an attempt to conserve her meagre income. Jin’s characters repeatedly find themselves persevering and enduring circumstances which they can do little or nothing to change. This resolution to soldier on, as well as themes of love and marriage and their attendant conveniences and/or disappointments, is recurrent in the author’s work.

The most striking of A Good Fall’s stories is “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry.” Originally published in The New Yorker, this poignant narrative introduces the reader to a garment worker who boards with three prostitutes and their madam. Slowly love blooms between him and one of the women, whose parents refuse to let her return home. Burdened by the outstanding fee she still owes her smuggler, their dream of a free life together is not without risk. “I felt kind of low, knowing that from now on I couldn’t write to my parents,” the garment worker reflects. “To my family, I would be as good as dead. In this place, we had no choice but to take loss as necessity.” Here, the reader is captivated by the kind of clarity and subtle yet memorable humanity that is indicative of the author’s calibre of writing.

A Good Fall may not be Jin’s greatest book, nor a fitting introduction to his work; but stories like “A Pension Plan,” and especially “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” create moments of excellence. In his writing, the author sifts through concepts like politics, war, mating habits, and migration, to seek the individual within the collective experience. This focus on the human faces within the communal phenomenon—and the ability to construct vivid characterizations and atmospherics, with just a few plain words—is why Jin is deservedly heralded.

While some readers may not be familiar with the worlds they discover in the author’s stories, they will surely recognize the people found there. Jin’s characters are spouses and lovers, parents and children, countrymen and friends. They are people contending with life as they know it. They are human.

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