A Map of Betrayal
I wanted to like Ha Jin's A Map of Betrayal; I really, really, did. But maybe going into it with this mindset is not the best way to read a book: with the expectation that "this is right up my alley, of course I'm going to love it." And.... I didn't love it.
A Map of Betrayal is the tale of Gary Shang, a Chinese spy embedded in the C.I.A. from 1949 onwards. The narration is split into two: Gary's life and his daughter's attempts to understand his father. The writing style just wasn't for me: it was too "I did this. I thought that. This seemed wrong to me" -- for example, the end of the first chapter, Lillian (Gary's daughter) narrates:
There was no denying that my father had been a top spy, but the more I worked on his materials, the more I was convinced that money hadn't been the primary motivation in his espionage for China. He was a man with a sizable ego; to me, he seemed too big for his boots and full of delusions. By professional standards, I wouldn't say he was a skilled spy, and his role had largely been thrust upon him by circumstances (8).
I got frustrated with this style of writing - and the lack of depth to all the characters besides Gary. In research for this blog post, I discovered the novel is based on the true story of Chinese spy Larry Wu-Tai Chin, active from 1952 to 1985. As Ha Jin explains:
To me, the historical truth behind the story makes the novel all the more interesting and all the less fulfilling. I wish we learned more about the human impact of the espionage; about the family Gary left behind in China; about his conflicted relationship with his CIA colleagues. Overall, glad I learned about this story and more of about the Chinese-American experience, but I finished reading disappointed.