As a writer, it’s impossible for me to read other authors’ works without examining how they create their best effects. For some time, I had wanted to read one of Ha Lin’s novels. I knew that English wasn’t his native language, but he seems to have mastered it well enough to receive the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Native speakers would have a very difficult time being chosen for all of these prizes, so I assume that Lin has something special to offer.
I chose The Boat Rocker as my introduction to Lin because it was available as an audiobook, and I was able to download it through my library and Overdrive. I’ve found that listening to a novel can be a valuable way for me to quickly tell if a writer can claim my full attention when I’m also either driving, working out at the gym, or working in my kitchen. Lin didn’t disappoint me.
Though The Boat Rocker is a quiet book in that its cadences are low-key and the author isn’t showing off with flowery language or metaphors, its narrative pace keeps the reader engaged in the subtle way it feeds information about the point-of-view character Feng Danlin and his attempts to pursue the truth as a reporter, even if it could come at enormous cost. We soon learn that for someone originally from China, as is true of both the author and Feng Danlin, this quest can be both dangerous and difficult. But Lin leans heavily on subtlety to convey Danlin’s story, and that is a great lesson for me as I work on my own fiction, long and short.
And while I can’t describe how The Boat Rocker ends because of spoilers, again, the understated, surprising conclusion gives a more powerful emotional punch than if the author had pumped it up and gone for the reader’s throat. So if you both want a good read and a model for your own writing, I recommend reading Lin. I don’t think he’ll disappoint you.