A mother and a son converse. He is 16; she is in middle age, married, with a younger son too; but neither husband nor the younger boy make more than glancing appearances in this short, ruthlessly heartbreaking book. The first line of the novel interrupts the mother’s thoughts, like a voice out of nowhere: “Mother dear, Nikolai said.” And so their banter begins, a kind of seamless argument that is the narrator’s attempt to cling on to her son. “Here I was, holding on to my attentiveness because that’s all I could do for him now.” The novel is set in the weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas – festive times, family times. But, not long before, Nikolai has killed himself: his mother is a writer, and this imagined dialogue is the only way she knows to keep him in her world.
Li is one of an elite coterie of writers – Conrad, Nabokov – who have chosen not to write in their native tongues. Born in Beijing, she came to the United States – after university and a spell in the Chinese army – to study immunology at the University of Iowa; a writing class changed the course of her life. In 2006 her first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was showered with awards, including the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award; in 2010 she was one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” gang – and that same year was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the “genius” grant. She has published two collections of short stories, two other novels and, in 2017, a memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, an account of her breakdown and two suicide attempts. Not long after that book was published, Li’s 16-year-old son committed suicide.
In Where Reasons End the narrator makes passing reference to “the year of my disintegration” but despite the harrowing comparisons that may be made, this novel does not invite an autobiographical reading. There is little story, as such: its 16 chapters – one for each year of the son’s life – are conversations only, each sequence interrogating meaning. The meaning of individual words, the meaning of existence itself, the meaning of the conventions we adhere to in our quotidian existence: all are brought under the microscope of this bookish mother and her precocious, plain-speaking son.
What to do, as a writer, when language fails? “I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy”, the narrator says, and proceeds to unfold the etymologies of what she acknowledges as “clichés ” – “grieve”, “explicate” – as if an examination of language offers a place of safety, a toehold to reality.
The novel is dotted with these dictionary-style analyses. “You’ll settle in sooner or later, even if it’s against your wish,” Nikolai tells his mother, more able than she is to accept that the immediacy of grief will fade. She considers the origin of the word “settle”: “from Old English, setlan, from setl, seat – to seat, bring to rest, come to rest. Can parents’ hearts find repose from the death of a child?”
None of this dialogue is in quotation marks, heightening the reader’s understanding that this conversation between the living mother and a son who is in the “aftertime” exists as an internal act of remembrance – which often takes the form of an argument. The son is frequently dismissive of the mother’s grief, seeing it as sentimentality; in that dismissal is a sense of the kind of rigorous boy he was. “I’m all clear now, pure and perfect, just the way I want,” he says.
He loved to bake, we learn: a culinary form far more rigorous and demanding than cooking. His friends write letters of remembrance, and brief details glint from the text: he bounced up and down while talking, “as though he had springs in his shoes”. He raced his friends down sidewalks; he leapt in the air to pluck plums from tree branches. And yet there was always a foreshadowing of some darkness: he was the kid who told his pals there was no such thing as Santa Claus; a teacher worried at the bleakness of his schoolboy poems.
This is a hard book to read. The narrator stares unblinking at her terrible grief, and yet evades it, and not only thanks to the words that mother and son bat back and forth like shuttlecocks. “I did not unfriend or unfollow life, Mommy,” Nikolai says. “Had I done that you would not have found me. We would not have been talking.” The lost boy is in the pages of this novel – and far beyond it, too.
Erica Wagner’s books include “Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)
Where Reasons End
Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, 170pp
This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe