The power of guilt
The new novel by Yiyun Li, winner of the first Frank O’Connor award, is formidably intelligent and stylistically precise, but it lacks empathy
Yiyun Li: she has written a darkly, perhaps oppressively intelligent study of human nature. Photograph: Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Kinder Than Solitude
It should be easy to sympathise with a girl who has travelled alone, across China, on a nine-hour train journey, badly dressed and burdened by an accordion. Ruyu arrives in Beijing, aged 15, to stay as a lodger with a family while she attends school. Raised by two elderly sisters, she appears chillingly self-possessed. As is this devastating second novel from Yiyun Li. Ruyu is different, possibly dangerous and watchful beyond her years. She resents having to share a bed with the daughter of the house, Shaoai, who is even more furious. After all, it is her bed.
Yet again this Beijing-born writer, who came to international prominence when she won the inaugural Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award with her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), followed by an outstanding novel, The Vagrants (2009), has written something entirely individual and unexpected. This is a darkly, perhaps oppressively intelligent study of human nature in which a crime is committed almost by default. It leaves one character, admittedly a strident personality yet one convincingly drawn, suspended in a death-in-life situation. There may only be one murderer, yet two other people are technically innocent but desperately compromised. The action moves back and forth between teenage years and the threshold of middle age.
In The Vagrants , a powerfully political work, Yiyun Li made inspired use of a real-life incident. It is a dramatic, often violent narrative and one of the finest novels of recent years. A young woman, having made a political gesture, is imprisoned for 10 years, during which she loses her mind. On her release the authorities take no chances, and severe her vocal cords, to prevent her chanting political slogans. She is then due to be executed – but not before one of her kidneys is removed, as the recipient has insisted on a living donor. It is shocking and real and true, yet Yiyun Li has not merely opportunistically seized on an historical event: she has revealed further layers of meaning.
This new novel is an equally formidable work, if far more ambivalent. Much of its impact comes from the unflinching characterisation; the central players are deeply unpleasant. The first one we meet is a man who remained in Beijing and carried on with his life yet clearly took some responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mysterious crime. He is not sympathetic, only sufficiently engaged to maintain contact by way of the informative emails – more like reports – which he dispatches, while never expecting a response.
He sends them to two women who have both left China and are living, if not settled, in the US. No one is at peace in this book, aside from the man’s complacent mother, an academic who lost her university position because her judgment was questioned. She prospered in industry yet remains curious about what really happened.
Yiyun Li introduces this one event at the very beginning and sustains her narrative around the unravelling of a chance act of revenge. As for the victim, her strong personality dominates many of the flashbacks, and contrasts with the passive state into which she was reduced.
Brilliant Beijing sequences
The sequences in Beijing are brilliant. The city comes to life: “Midsummer in Beijing, its extreme heat and humidity occasionally broken by a relieving thunderstorm, gave the impression that life today would be that of tomorrow, and the day after, until forever: the watermelon rinds accumulated at the roadside would go on rotting and attracting swarms of flies; murky puddles in the alleyways from overspilled sewers dwindled, but before they entirely disappeared another storm would replenish them; old men and women, sitting next to bamboo perambulators in the shadows of palace walls, cooled down their children with giant fans woven of sedge leaves, and if one closed one’s eyes and opened them again one could almost believe that the fans and the babies and the wrinkle-faced grandparents were the same ones from a hundred years ago.”
Ruyu is a disturbing presence, intent on remaining detached. Aside from the tension she brings into a family’s home, she upsets a long-term friendship between a boy and a girl. In the aftermath of the event the girls leave China, but the boy, Boyang, the son of the academic who loses her job, remains in Beijing. Years pass, and he has been dutiful to the victim and her parents, if little else. Boyang is cold and calculating.
Yiyun Li’s work has much in common stylistically with that of Jhumpa Lahiri; both writers can draw on their inherited cultures, although Yiyun Li’s connection is more intense. Neither appears to have any feel for humour, and Yiyun is unafraid of depicting the blackness of human nature.
Not an easy read
Kinder Than Solitude is not an easy book to read. The dialogue is very good, though it is difficult to believe acquaintances Ruyu meets in her new life in the US would be quite so tolerant of her appalling rudeness. She is a monster to be shunned, yet those around her appear to keep coming back for more. Perhaps if there is a weakness in a novel as disciplined and controlled as this one, it lies in Ruyu, whose responses, particularly as a little girl, sound very adult and rather formal. The characters favour speeches, not ordinary conversation.
The lack of empathy is off-putting, which may explain why a reader may feel too dependent on the one sympathetic player, Moran, the second of the two women. A kindly child, her life is as damaged as that of the victim. The adult Moran is far less convincing.
The centre of this impressive, slow-moving and rather cruel work could be described as an exploration of the ways guilt lingers and is compounded by memory and time. The major points are so emphatic that the lesser details, such as the attempt to flesh out a sense of daily life, particularly in the US sequences, fall flat. Yiyun has taken the risk of allowing Ruyu to dominate the book: it is a bit like having the wrong actor carry a movie. Again, in one of the many ironies, this novel would make a compelling screenplay.
Kindness , the finest story in her outstanding second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), shows how gifted Yiyun Li is. Kinder Than Solitude is a work to admire – I gave up counting the number of times it made me wince – but it is so cold. The Vagrants , for all its violence, is a work of soaring humanity that engages the emotions with rare power. It would never be easy to follow such a remarkable a novel.
It is not essential for a novelist to create likeable characters, but it does help if they are at least human. Ruyu may as well be from outer space; Boyang is not very nice, but he is real. Reading this astute novel, for all its perception, is at times like hearing a pianist demonstrating technical perfection without a glimmer of passion.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent