THIS is new ground for Ha Jin: The China-born American novelist's eighth novel is his first set in the United States.
Yet, in terms of plot and theme, A Free Life is nothing groundbreaking. The chronicle of the Wu family's life is occasionally eventful but generally undramatic, while the woes and aspirations of Asian immigrants in Western societies have been written about numerous times.
Yet, somehow, the novel reels you in from the start, with its sympathetic characters and emotionally engaging episodes. The protagonist is Nan Wu, a Harbin native who is a political science PhD candidate at Brandeis University when the Tiananmen Square massacre breaks out.
Weary of politics, shaken by the cruelty of the Chinese government and guaranteed a green card by the US, he decides to drop his studies and attempt to pursue his dream of becoming a poet.
However, real life gets in the way. He has a wife and child to feed, and as the Wus struggle to give their son, Taotao, a comfortable life, Nan is moulded from wild dreamer into practical worker.
With a kind of cynical humour - perhaps borne of experience - the writer lets his protagonist's literary dreams be raised, only to dash them again. Nan jumps on a bus to New York when he accepts a job offer with a fledgling Chinese literary journal.
But living out an immigrant cliche, the master's degree holder ends up learning how to be a cook in a Chinatown dumpling restaurant.
The family eventually moves to Atlanta, Georgia, to run the Gold Wok, their own restaurant, and they reconcile themselves to the fact that the US must be their home now.
Their occasional brushes with the city's Chinese immigrant population lead Nan to ponder upon the definition of home and belonging.
As he says to a gathering of Chinese immigrants at one point: 'Has it ever occurred to you that this obsession is dangerous? I mean to let a country dominate an individual's life and outweigh everything else.'
Meanwhile, the stories of their friends and acquaintances examine different dimensions of the American dream.
There is the opportunistic Chinese artist who churns out a picture a day; and a childless couple driven to tears when asked to choose one of two Chinese baby girls to adopt, knowing that picking one might condemn the other to a miserable life.
Throughout these trials, the symbol of Nan's dissatisfaction with his new, practical life is embodied in the form of a feckless but glamorous ex-girlfriend he can't seem to forget, to the anguish of his devoted wife.
But ultimately, what he learns is that nostalgia only impedes one's appreciation and involvement in the present.
Disowned by the land of his past, he must learn how to be free.
If you like this, read: Waiting by Ha Jin (1999, $16.59 with GST, Books Kinokuniya)
The novel that shot him to fame, it tells the story of a man whose love and life are put on hold as he tries to honour his duty and traditions.
A FREE LIFE
By Ha Jin
Pantheon Books/ Hardcover/
660 pages/$32.65 (without GST)/
Major bookstores/**** 1/2