It Begins: Best Books of 2007

Slate writers and editors pick the best books of the year:

Robert Pinsky, poetry editor

I second Ann Hulbert’s nomination of A Free Life, Ha Jin’s first book set in the United States, which tells the story of a Chinese family remaking themselves as Americans. But it’s way more interesting than that may sound: If this cunning work is an “immigrant novel,” it transforms the genre. The narrative unfolds on such an intimate, domestic scale, with such urgent, character-driven interest—like a supersubtle, Chinese-American telenovela—that it takes a while to realize that this is also an epic.Ha Jin’s previous novels have been epic in more obvious ways: War and politics disrupt and govern human lives in Waiting, War Trash, The Crazed. In A Free Life, the Tiananmen Square massacre propels the fate of the central character Nan and his family, but the subject is culture itself. In a quiet, yet audacious style—maybe it should be called “magical plainness”?—Ha Jin transforms his account of the family’s tribulations, rises, and conflicts by including a thread of artistic ambition. Nan becomes a poet, struggling to write in English, with poems supplied and written by his creator: compelling, flawed, sometimes comical works, slipped in as effectively as plot elements of sex, money, migrations, and returns. The hunger to make art is made so compelling, and so convincingly embedded in the American immigrant experience that poetry, in this story, seems somehow, mysteriously—I swear—to embody American life itself, amplifying the ironies and promises of the words “a free life.