Reading A Map of Betrayal reminded me a lot of The Americans which I was watching at the same time by coincidence. The Americans takes place in the 1980s and is about two Russian spies who have been undercover in the U.S. for years and have started a family. An ongoing theme in the show is the very different feelings the husband (Matthew Rhys) and wife (Keri Russell) have about their adopted country since they are Communists. I recommend both this book and the show if the topic of patriotism interests you.
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
In the early days of the Cultural Revolution in China, Gary Shang is recruited as a spy to infiltrate the CIA office operating in Shanghai. To accept the assignment, Gary has to leave behind his family and young wife without any clue as to his whereabouts. Gary desperately misses his family, but all of his requests to see his family or send a message are denied. Years pass and now living in Washington, D.C., Gary is told to start a new family and he marries a young American woman who eventually gives birth to their daughter. Running parallel to Gary’s story is his daughter’s story. Lillian is in her forties and a successful professor. With the help of Gary’s secret diaries, she finally begins to understand the double life of her father. After learning that Gary’s first wife had a child, Lillian travels to China to track down his family and learn more about the man who sacrificed a normal life to serve his country.
A Map of Betrayal is a riveting examination of patriotism and how for one man it creates a permanent moral dilemma that eventually destroys his life. I particularly enjoyed how Ha Jin weaves into the story the complex political conflict between China and the U.S. for the four decades Gary was a spy.
A few things bothered me about the book, but most importantly I was disappointed that we are in Gary’s head for the entire book, experiencing his roller coaster of emotions, and then suddenly at the end his voice disappears and we learn about his fate second-hand.
How patriotism can blind a person to what is right or wrong or choose loyalty over love are central to the story in A Map of Betrayal. I enjoyed how this theme was explored, the drama of Gary’s double life and the political history covered in the book.