When he gets the call that his father is missing, Yitian hasn’t been back to his home village in Anhui, China for more than a decade. I don’t he’d be able to explain why he leaves his wife and his job at an unnamed American university to get on a plane and go help find the man. Over the course of A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang, we learn what would compel Yitian to travel back to the place that holds his worst memories. We also learn about the forces and chances that can derail us from our chosen paths in life.
Years before he became an assistant professor at an American university, Yitian was the son of poor, rural farmers. He’s not a strong worker and, instead of going to the fields, Yitian would rather listen to his grandfather’s stories about the history of China. His hard-bitten father loathes Yitian for his preferences. And Yitian’s life might have gone on like that—hard labor, abusive home life, no future—if it weren’t for the announcement that the gaokao would finally be held again. These national college entrance exams had been suspended since the Cultural Revolution. If Yitian can score well enough on the gaokao, he can go to university and escape the Tang Family Villages. And if his friend, Hanwen, a sent-down teenager from Shanghai, can score well enough, perhaps she can leave the villages, too, and return to her mother.
A Map for the Missing bounced back and forth between 1993—when Yitian returns to China to help look for his father—and the late 1970s and early 1980s—when Yitian is still a teenager dreaming of becoming a scholar. As the narrative shifts in time, we see that life is never a straight line. Yitian has pinballed through his entire life, responding to the actions of others and being bounced off of his previous trajectory. For example, he ended up in America because the head of his department at university in Beijing recommended him. He married his wife because she initiated contact. He passed the gaokao because Hanwen badgered him into studying. Yitian hardly has to make choices at all. And, if you look closely, you can see how other characters similarly pinball through their lives in response to someone else pushing them off course.
A missing father is just a catalyst in A Map for the Missing. The real story, I think, is about the loneliness people can feel when they believe that no one else really understands them. No one in this story shares their stories with each other. When a character learns about another’s past—and, hence, why they are the way they are—it’s a revelation. My impression of most of the characters in A Map for the Missing is that they are all presenting one version of themselves to the world while keeping their thoughts and emotions private. None of them can make themselves vulnerable enough to talk about the things that really matter. And so, as they all ricochet around each other, opportunities for happiness and love and understanding appear and vanish and reappear. This is an emotionally complex novel. I’d recommend it to readers who like deep psychological portraits in interesting settings.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.