cover image A Map for the Missing

A Map for the Missing

Belinda Huijuan Tang. Penguin Press, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-593-30066-4

Tang’s gripping if predictable debut opens in 1993 as math professor Tang Yitian receives word in the U.S. from his aging mother in rural China that his father has gone missing. Yitian boards a flight, leaving his wife behind, and returns to his birthplace for the first time in nearly a decade to help in the search. After it becomes clear the police aren’t interested in helping, Yitian reaches out to Tian Hanwen, an estranged friend now married to a local politician, to ask for help, and their reunion fans romantic sparks they’d both denied in their youth. Tang rewinds the nonlinear timeline back through the late 1970s and early ’80s to track the duo, showing Yitian passing the gaokao college exam and Hanwen failing it. Meanwhile in 1993, sightings of Yitian’s father turn out to be false and Yitian begins to lose hope. Throughout, Tang weaves her characters’ stories seamlessly and incorporates commentary on class politics via Hanwen’s participation in China’s “sent-down youth” program as a teen and Yitian’s uncomfortable early adulthood. Still, the plot sometimes feels manufactured to produce moments of triumph and disaster. While the turns are easy to anticipate, Yitian and Hanwen’s complex history makes this engrossing. Agent: Julie Barer, Book Group. (Aug.)