BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, November 2016
In the United States, good journalists are muckrakers, rabble-rousers, sometimes even troublemakers—their job is to rock the boat. In this sense, newly naturalized U.S. citizen Feng Danlin, the hero of Ha Jin’s page-turning but profound new novel, The Boat Rocker, is a true American. A columnist for a Chinese-language newspaper operated out of New York City, Danlin knows that some of his columns make it into China despite the country’s outside-media freeze, and he takes that responsibility seriously.
When we meet him, Danlin is chasing a new obsession: a story about his ex-wife, Yan Haili, who left him for another man and went on to write a romance novel starring idealized versions of herself and her new husband. Adding insult to personal injury, the Chinese government has positioned itself firmly behind Haili’s book, hailing it as an example of improving relations between the U.S. and China. When Danlin discovers that reports of American excitement over the book (including a huge movie deal and English-language translation) are lies, he makes exposing them his focus.
Danlin is self-righteous about his hatred of the book, and he’s tireless in attacking both it and his ex-wife. Initially, his pursuit of such a seemingly silly story in which he has an obvious personal stake makes the reader question his credibility and judgment. We find ourselves wishing Danlin would drop his personal vendetta. But eventually we start to see the point: When a government begins to manipulate art, even romance novels, it signals a determination to root out individuality and liberty wherever it grows.
Haili’s betrayal of Danlin echoes the bigger betrayal of Danlin by China itself, a home that has been closed off to him. His divorce lets him finally access the pain of being rejected by a country that attacks his sense of justice, his right to question authority and even his right to seek truth and fulfillment in his own life and work. The twists and turns of Danlin’s fight with Haili make The Boat Rocker a compelling read, but Jin’s insight into nationalism, patriotism and the true cost of freedom of the press gives the novel depth and brilliance.