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China’s Chekhov: Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

The sophomore novel from the author of story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Students from Beijing University during a huge demonstration at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo: Getty
Yiyun Li's first novel, Kinder than Solitude, is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Photo: Getty

Kinder than Solitude
Yiyun Li
Fourth Estate, 312pp, £16.99

In her award-winning story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and her superb first novel The Vagrants, Yiyun Li writes about how human relationships have endured or been crushed by China’s chaotic reality.

However, it is in America that Li’s importance as a writer is established. She is a MacArthur fellow and one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to watch. None of her works has been published in Chinese. And even though she didn’t move from Beijing to San Francisco until she was 24, she writes solely in English. “Chinese is rather an inhibitory language for me,” she has said. “I don’t have a Chinese vocabulary for most emotions because I grew up in this environment where emotions were not encouraged.”

Kinder than Solitude, like Li’s first novel, is about the unspoken emotional fallout of a young woman’s death in a small community. While The Vagrants revolved around the execution of a dissident during the Cultural Revolution, Kinder than Solitude is set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Shaoai, a belligerent student awaiting punishment for her part in the protests, is mysteriously poisoned.

The story begins with the arrival of Ruyu, an unloved orphan who moves in with Shaoai’s family in a close-knit quadrangle in Beijing. Shaoai spares no effort in making her feel unwelcome, but her young friends Moran and Boyang (the only boy) happily take her under their wing. The three friends are the prime suspects in Shaoai’s poisoning although no one is charged with the crime. The novel evolves like a thriller that depends less on whodunnit than on differing emotional consequences for the three suspects: “A secret that never heals makes a person, however close, a stranger,” says Ruyu, “or worse, an intimate, an enemy.” Ruyu’s calm, inscrutable voice dominates the novel, and those around her. Her aggressive stoicism unsettles the community much more than the protests. “Intimacy and alienation,” writes Li, “both required effort beyond Ruyu’s willingness.”

In the two decades it takes for the poison to disfigure and finally kill Shaoai, the three friends enter their own quiet and insistent versions of solitude. Twenty years on, Ruyu dispassionately studies “her bruised body in a mirror so that she could have a better sense of the pain she should feel”. Moran becomes “a weary impersonator of all that one was not”. Boyang, the only one to stay in Beijing, cruises the streets as a cynical womaniser. As Li reveals the ways in which the emotionally destitute see themselves, judgements become harder to pass, conclusions murky and elusive.

Distance provides some perspective. Both Ruyu and Moran move to the US, making Kinder than Solitude one of the few times that Li’s fiction has left Chinese soil. Though America doesn’t generate the vivid descriptions that light up Beijing, this cultural shift provides a platform for Li to examine afresh the notions of fate and culpability.

As a child, Moran was once reminded of an old Chinese saying: “An egg never wins when it hurls itself against a rock.” It helps explain why she and Boyang find Ruyu’s fatalism so beguiling and, ultimately, contagious. In America, however, it is utterly baffling. To her waspish San Francisco employer, Ruyu is a curio rather than a threat, her chronic stoicism almost comical: “Disappointment is for those who begin with a plan, those who sow seeds and refuse to accept the barrenness of life.”

Although the lives and landscapes of this book become bleak indeed (marriages fall apart, no children are born, disconnection is the default), Li’s insight and humanity breathe beauty into the barrenness. And, despite the aimlessness of the characters, the plot is powered by the underlying mystery of Shaoai’s poisoning that, when resolved, poses forceful questions about agency and blame.

If it seems like Li is sidestepping politics, she isn’t. Her novel is published during the 25th-anniversary year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and its smaller tragedy seems interchangeable with the one that overshadows it: “One day neighbours in the quadrangle would refer to this time as the days when Shaoai had been mysteriously sick, as they would speak of the May afternoon when an army tank was overthrown and burned down at a nearby crossroads, or the day in June when Teacher Pang’s cousin pedalled three bodies on his flatbed tricycle from the Square to the hospital.”

Kinder than Solitude lacks the colourful personalities of The Vagrants, and at times the characters’ isolation can be a little overbearing. Yet this is also where Li’s writing is most powerful: her penetrating, understated sentences perfectly capture the muted feelings of her characters. No wonder she has been called China’s Chekhov.