Belinda Huijuan Tang’s charming debut novel, “A Map for the Departed,” unfolds slowly and confidently, revealing the secrets in the hearts of its characters, one by one. Protagonist Yitian Tang lives in the United States, a professor at a prestigious university, a life seemingly full of accomplishments beyond his wild dreams as a boy growing up in a village in rural China’s Anhui province. Yet he feels adrift and unable to enjoy or appreciate his enviable life. Yitian can’t quite name the source of his displeasure.
When he receives a desperate call from his mother in China, asking him to return to help find his missing elderly father, Yitian agrees to return home. However, upon returning to his childhood village, Yitian must confront the ghosts of his past and estrangement from his father, whom he had not seen in over a decade.
The novel takes flight as Tang unravels Yitian’s youth during the Cultural Revolution. She vividly depicts daily life in a small village, where Yitian falls in love with Hanwen, a girl sent to the countryside from Shanghai, according to Mao’s political campaign dictating that urban youth “learn from peasants”. Together, they dream of passing the newly reinstated gaokao college entrance exam and going to college together.
Meanwhile, Yitian’s bitter father can only understand his clever son’s ambitions as rejection. He instead showers his love on his eldest son, Yishou, whose physical strength is revered by the villagers.
Tang’s prose is elegant and precise, as in this description of a village burial: “They buried him in the patch of land behind their fields, where their family people had always been buried. The day was sunny , one of those strange days when the light was blinding and embedded in the ground, slowly warming the surface of the earth after all the cooler days that had preceded them.The light reflected off the white mourning clothes worn by the guests, so Yitian could barely look at them without his eyes burning.”
As past and present sorrows collide, Tang carefully delineates his characters’ dreams for themselves and the sometimes-conflicting hopes of their families. Alternating between the late 1970s and early 1990s, “A Map for the Missing” is a vivid portrait of this period of rapid change in Chinese society, showing both the benefits of openness to the world as well as more personal losses that cannot be recovered.
Tang graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned a master’s degree from Peking University in Beijing.
May-lee Chai is an American Book Award winner and author, most recently, of “Tomorrow in Shanghai & Other Stories”. She is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
A card for the missing
By: Belinda Huijuan Tang.
Editor: Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27.