Ha Jin...writes novels defined by profound thoughtfulness and quiet, unshowy grace. His unadorned prose; cool, hypnotic style; and nuanced, compassionate portraits of characters seeking freedom and fulfillment while running up against bureaucratic, political, and personal obstacles have won him a deservedly admiring readership. His latest novel, A Song Everlasting marshals many of these winning features in the service of a deeply moving portrait of an artist as an immigrant in a new land ... a little long—some details seem extraneous or distracting and there are unnecessary repetitions—but by novel’s end, we are deeply bonded to its protagonist, who emerges from one setback, trauma, and blow after another with his dignity, idealism, and essential goodness intact. The quiet heroism of his life, his commitment to growth and art, his emergence into the experience of ordinary contentment are impressive and touching.
... a morally implausible, if not confused, novel ... reveals the difficulty of refracting recent Chinese history through fictions about lone individuals ... Over the course of A Song Everlasting, I kept expecting Tian’s life to finally fall apart, laying bare the impossibility of telling Chinese narratives of progress in an era of historical amnesia. Things go perilously from bad to worse for Tian, each turn prompted by an impulsive decision or event more random than the last. The novel’s genre flickers in and out of focus accordingly. At times, the specificity in which Jin details China’s online surveillance apparatus renders the novel aggressively realist. The bulk of A Song Everlasting, however, might best be read as naturalist fiction, in which characters are reduced to cogs in the machinery of capitalism, moving, as Lily Bart does in The House of Mirth, into smaller and dingier rooms until they die. Such a novel would refuse to indulge in Chinese mass trauma with Chinese individual heroism. Ultimately, though, Jin can’t resist the temptation ... One wonders how a character with as much long-game integrity as Tian ever sang for the Chinese state in the first place, much less take the side gig, only to defect for life. In his latest novel, Jin seems finally to have lost the plot.
A Song Everlasting...is ultimately a more balanced and accomplished novel than [Jin's] A Free Life, in part because there are many escape valves that allow bitterness to flow away from the main line of the narrative ... when, in describing Tian’s circumstances, Jin falls back on a cliché—for example, having characters discuss freedom against a backdrop of birds in flight, like Tony Soprano gazing at the ducks in his swimming pool—he does not recoil from the sentimental formula ... Sorrows, too, are softened ... The note of mild contentment, of making do with second best—we find Tian, on the book’s last page, drinking a non-alcoholic beer—may seem disappointingly emollient to fans of Waiting and War Trash, but the acid bath couldn’t go on forever, and in the lives of most immigrants it probably doesn’t.
Humor does...pervade Ha Jin’s fiction, and in particular this novel, but like the varied emotions he portrays, it is muted. In contrast to his contemporary Yu Hua, for instance, whose work is laced with comic obscenity and satirical excess, this author is a restrained, meticulous chronicler of precarious lives. Details of money and work, of illness and other misfortunes, are central to his narratives, each of which, however turbulent, proceeds with unhurried grace ... Tian, the defiant artist, stands for nothing less than freedom of conscience and artistic expression—he has, in that sense, no choice but to grow—and consequently risks becoming insubstantial as a character. Yet he holds our anxious attention, chiefly because the daily circumstances of his new life are documented with such scrupulous precision and his emotions described with such economical plainness that we are alert to each nuance, every shift.
... another quiet, more passive-than-not antihero caught between China and the U.S ... Jin's narrative here isn't his strongest—prolonged over hundreds of pages, Tian's meandering, passive acceptance, especially, grows cumbersome. For Jin's most devoted readers, however, his signature ability to engage and expand his characters through acute, forthright observations will not disappoint. Once again, Jin provides a meaningful everyman tale beyond borders and cultures.
The author's ability to reframe the American dream through the perspective of an immigrant and political refugee is poignant ... Some readers may not find the protagonist's internal struggle compelling, but his story is written with heart and hope.
... scrupulously narrated and deeply enmeshing ... Ha Jin’s intimately precise, questioning, and quietly dramatic portrait of a devoted, ever-evolving artist committed to songs that are 'ecstatic and mysterious and solitary' has far-reaching and profound resonance.
... uninspired ... Jin has a knack for seamlessly compressing large swaths of time, yet Tian remains something of a mystery, with little effort made to explore his singing abilities. And though the author shuttles his protagonist through a series of trials over many years, Tian’s unfailing ability to overcome setbacks lessens the novel’s dramatic pull. As far as itinerant heroes’ quests for freedom go, this one doesn’t get the heart racing.
Though 37 years old and a well-established vocalist in his native China, Yao Tian seems curiously naïve and passive ... Written with terse command, in short chapters and without literary flourish, the novel itself is no morality tale ... Written with great control, the novel unfolds as surprisingly as life often does.