With dark humor and a light touch that don’t entirely mask the anguish behind them, National Book Award-winner Ha Jin examines China’s chilling effect on free speech. Jin’s brisk eighth novel is told from the point of view of New York-based journalist Feng Danlin; self-described as The Boat Rocker (Pantheon, $25.95), Danlin works for an independent Chinese-language news agency and aspires to be a public intellectual, but for now his mission is just to tell the truth. JIn dramatizes questions of censorship, intimidation, and outright deception, following Danlin’s latest story, which involves an outrageously hyped novel by a fledgling writer. Setting out to expose “a lie the size of heaven,” Danlin is pressured by Chinese agents to back off. When he persists, his girlfriend is denied a visa to study in China. Then Homeland Security warns him against upsetting Chinese-American relations. Though Danlin is a naturalized U.S. citizen, he can’t escape emotional and political ties to the country he left. Similarly, he can’t ignore his anger at his ex-wife—who happens to be the novelist at the heart of his current investigation. While this may seem like a minor incident, Jin frames it within larger questions. His short, punchy book asks if journalists anywhere can be truly independent, and if émigrés can ever really leave their home countries. Finally, he wonders if it›s even fair to assume that “the powerless are more decent than the powerful.”
As she did with each of her previous three novels, including the best-selling The Dogs of Babel, the D.C.-based writer Carolyn Parkhurst again performs complex feats of storytelling with a deceptive ease and grace. In Harmony (Pamela Dorman, $26), Parkhurst uses the alternating voices of a mother and her eleven-year-old daughter to narrate the story of a family buckling from the strain of raising a child on the autism spectrum. Thirteen-year-old Tilly is brilliant but socially challenged. Her language is unrestrained and sometimes vulgar, and her behavior veers between terrifying and odd: during a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant, for example, Tilly launches into a sophisticated critique of regional cuisines while succumbing to a series of physical tics that have her twisting and gyrating and touching her head to the floor. After she is expelled from school, the family takes radical action. Under the sway of a charismatic child behaviorist named Scott Bean, they give up their comfortable lives in the District to move to rural New Hampshire, where Bean is establishing a community for families wrestling with similar issues. Parkhurst’s haunting prologue foreshadows the fact that this bucolic setting will not offer a panacea. There may be no easy answers, but there is love and family to fall back on, as well as palliatives like this book.
Set right here in Northwest D.C., Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Here I Am (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28) is the story of a family in crisis. When Julia discovers a series of explicit text messages on her husband Jacob Bloch’s phone, it spells doom for their relationship and major changes for the couple’s three sons. Meanwhile, an earthquake in Israel leads to chaos in the Middle East that stretches all the way to the Bloch household. With wisdom and humor, Foer has produced another immensely entertaining novel. Here I Am captures the contradictions and enigmas of contemporary life and the immensity of love, even in a disintegrating family. Mark LaFramboise