Stephan Lee
November 26, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

A Map of Betrayal

Current Status
In Season
Ha Jin

We gave it a B+

International intrigue and familial secrets merge in A Map of Betrayal, a subtle page-turner by the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting. In the vein of John le Carré, Ha Jin delves into his profoundly ambivalent antihero Gary Shang, a high-ranking CIA translator who passed state secrets to operatives in Mao’s China from 1949 until 1980, when he was finally outed as a mole.

The novel is narrated by Gary’s American-born daughter, Lilian, a college professor who comes into possession of her father’s secret journals after his death. Leafing through the pages, she not only learns details about his life as a Communist intelligence agent, but she also discovers that he had been married as a young man in China—and that he had left that first family behind when he emigrated. Soon Lilian, who’s moved to Beijing for a semester after winning a Fulbright, ventures deep into the provinces of northeast China to search for her long-lost half sister. It’s then, in a shocking twist, that the legacy of her father’s decades-long deception comes back to haunt her.

The novel expertly chronicles the fraught relationship between the U.S. and modern China with plainspoken clarity while only occasionally straying into textbook territory. Gary’s story unfurls with sometimes frustrating restraint until the novel’s second half, when the dam breaks and you can fully appreciate how torn he was between loyalty to his home country and the new life he was forging in the U.S. A Map of Betrayal works on two levels — as a startling thriller about a double agent whose carefully regimented life falls apart as soon as his cover gets blown, and as a moving family saga, the story of a hardworking immigrant father whose reticence masks wells of deeply held secrets. B+

”When forsythia began to bloom in my backyard, she mailed me my father’s diary, six morocco-bound volumes, each measuring eight inches by five. I hadn’t known he kept a journal, and I had assumed that the FBI seized all the papers left by him, Gary Shang, the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America.”

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