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Belinda Huijuan Tang's lovely debut novel, "A Map for the Missing," unfolds slowly and confidently, revealing the secrets in the hearts of its characters, one by one. Protagonist Yitian Tang is living in the United States, a professor at a prestigious university, a life seemingly full of achievements beyond his wild dreams as a boy growing up in a village in China's rural Anhui province. Yet he feels adrift and unable to enjoy or appreciate his enviable life. Yitian can't quite name the source of his discontent.

When he receives a desperate call from his mother in China, asking him to return to help search for his elderly father who is missing, Yitian agrees to fly home. However, upon his return to his boyhood village, Yitian must confront the ghosts of his past and source of estrangements from his father, whom he had not seen in more than a decade.

The novel soars as Tang unfolds Yitian's youth during the Cultural Revolution. She vividly describes daily life in a small village, where Yitian falls in love with Hanwen, a girl sent down to the countryside from Shanghai, according to Mao's political campaign dictating that urban youth "learn from the peasants." Together they dream of passing the newly reinstated gaokao entrance exam to college and of attending university together.

Meanwhile, Yitian's bitter father cannot understand his brainy son's ambitions except as a rejection. He instead pours his love on his elder son, Yishou, whose physical strength is revered by villagers.

Tang's prose is elegant and precise, as in this description of a village funeral: "They buried him in the plot of land behind their fields, where the people in their family had always been buried. The day was sunny, one of those strange winter days when the light was blindingly bright and baked itself into the ground, slowly warming the surface of the dirt after all the cooler days that had come before. The light reflected off the white mourning clothes the guests wore, so that Yitian could hardly look at them without his eyes burning."

As past and present heartbreaks collide, Tang delineates with care her characters' dreams for themselves and sometimes conflicting hopes of their families. Shifting back and forth between the late 1970s and early 1990s, "A Map for the Missing" is a vivid portrait of this period of rapid change in Chinese society, showing both the benefits of opening to the world as well as more personal losses that cannot be recouped.

Tang is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and received an M.A. from Peking University in Beijing.

May-lee Chai is the winner of an American Book Award and author, most recently, of "Tomorrow in Shanghai & Other Stories." She is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

A Map for the Missing
By: Belinda Huijuan Tang.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27.