STARRED REVIEW
November 2014

A father’s hidden life

By Ha Jin
Review by
A Map of Betrayal, the new novel from the PEN/Faulkner-winning author Ha Jin (Waiting, Nanjing Requiem) is a haunting tale of two families and two countries that are linked together by the life of a single spy. When American-born professor of Asian Studies Lillian Shang inherits her father Gary’s journals, she uncovers details of his four-decade career as a spy for Communist China. But when history threatens to repeat itself in the next generation, Lillian must struggle with issues of loyalty and betrayal.
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A Map of Betrayal, the new novel from the PEN/Faulkner-winning author Ha Jin (Waiting, Nanjing Requiem) is a haunting tale of two families and two countries that are linked together by the life of a single spy. When American-born professor of Asian Studies Lillian Shang inherits her father Gary’s journals, she uncovers details of his four-decade career as a spy for Communist China. But when history threatens to repeat itself in the next generation, Lillian must struggle with issues of loyalty and betrayal.

Using the diaries, Lillian follows her father from his early years as a secret agent working for Mao against the Nationalist army to his career as a U.S.-based spy feeding intelligence to China—but the most shocking revelation is that he left a wife and two children behind when he immigrated to the United States in 1950. Visiting the village where he once lived offers Lillian some understanding of her father’s choices and sheds light on the dynamics that shaped her own unhappy childhood. Gary’s first family was never told about his fate, nor did they ever benefit financially from his position. This triggers intense guilt over her own material advantages, and she thrusts herself into the personal lives of her newfound family—only to discover that her nephew, Ben, may be following in his grandfather’s footsteps.

The novel is told in chapters that alternate between Lillian’s present-day pursuit of her father’s story and Gary’s career from 1949 to his death in the late 1980s. Gary’s story, which is actually the more poignant of the two, is unfortunately occasionally rendered in a dense prose that reads like a textbook on American-Sino relations. Lillian’s chapters, however, reflect her aching personal sadness, and the novel closes with a delicate, ironic twist that one associates with the best of Jin’s fiction. A Map of Betrayal is the gripping story of a daughter coming to terms with her family history, set against a backdrop of political change.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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