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The Book of Goose review: An enthralling novel about teenage friendship

Yiyun Li’s aphoristic French-set book blends traditional folk tale with satisfying depth of realistic fiction

The Book of Goose
Author: Yiyun Li
ISBN-13: 978-0008531812
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £16.99

Teenage friendship is the main subject of this wonderful novel. Fabienne and Agnès initially seem to be two sides of the same coin. Like Edna O’Brien’s Baba and Cait, they are country girls, Fabienne a bold ugly genius, Agnès a sweet, pretty goose. They live in a mucky village, all smelly pigs and dirty hens, just after the second World War. It’s in France but Yiyun Li’s spare prose endows everything with a universal quality. Time and place certainly play a role, but the village could be anywhere. The focus is entirely on Agnès, the narrator, and Fabienne, and a few individuals who play a significant part in their story.

And what a story! Fabienne tells crazy cruel tales. Agnès, whose penmanship is neat, is her amanuensis. With the help of an eccentric neighbour, the stories are published. Agnès becomes a celebrated author, a child prodigy, lionised in Paris, introduced to important people, perfumed baths and chic clothes. Fame, and those who wish to exploit her, separate her from her muse, from her very imagination­ – Fabienne. What happens next injects the novel with quiet suspense.

‘Crystal’ heart

The book is rich in aphorisms. “Sad people don’t often know that they are sad and bored.” “Some people are born with a special kind of a crystal instead of a heart.” These frequent observations, with a proverbial quality, enhance the fairy-tale feel of the work – it achieves both the stylised beauty of a traditional folk tale and the satisfying depth of realistic fiction. And it pulls the reader along. Who really makes the books, Fabienne or Agnès? As well as exploring obsessive friendship, Li considers the nature of creativity. Spare me, says you, but the book is anything but pretentious or pedantic. Perhaps it is best described by Mrs Townsend, one of the story’s witchy types, who, like most of the characters, has a gift for uttering the pithy one-liner: “There are many savage moments in the book, but your writing has a special kind of clarity. Like a perfect C-Major piece on the piano.” That’s it. Claritas is what it has – luminosity, and mystery. Enthralling!

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a writer. Her latest collection of stories is Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff, 2020)