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8 November 2022

Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose: in the shadow of Elena Ferrante

This under-powered story of a morbid teenage friendship in rural France cannot avoid comparisons to the Neapolitan Quartet.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Bored people are dangerous people. From the conniving Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons to the ultraviolent droogs of A Clockwork Orange, literature is full of them, going all the way back to the beginning. Boredom is the root of all evil, wrote Søren Kierkegaard. “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”

Bored adolescents are particularly dangerous because they are testing powers they barely understand: think of Briony Tallis in Atonement, who causes havoc by blurring reality with her own fictions. The same is true of Fabienne and Agnès, two rural 13-year-olds living in post-Second World War France, who are at the heart of Yiyun Li’s strange new historical novel. With the help of a recently widowed village postmaster, the two teenagers write a book of morbid portraits of village life: a man who copulates with a cow; another who cuts off chickens’ heads to show children how the animals dance; a mother who suffocates her newborn and leaves it in a pigs’ trough. Rebellious, unschooled Fabienne dictates the stories; passive Agnès commits them to paper. But Fabienne insists that only one of them will have their name on the cover.

[See also: Fate and freedom in Elena Ferrante]

“Fabienne was bored. I was, too,” Agnès, the narrator, says. “I did not fear boredom, but I feared that if she was defeated by boredom, something colossal would happen, something deadly, something that would change her and me forever. I would do anything she asked me to, just so that she found life interesting.”

Like Emma Bovary, the ultimate bored housewife, the girls live in the French countryside – in a place called Saint Rémy. This may or may not be Saint-Rémy-de- Provence, the town near Marseille in southern France, it isn’t ever made clear, but it feels more like a grim village from a fairy tale. And given that Yiyun took inspiration from a real-life story of a child novelist who grew up on a pig farm (some accounts say central France, others in the west), she’s likely to have a less idyllic place in mind.

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Yiyun has drawn on the tale of Berthe Grimault, who in the late 1950s was hailed as a child prodigy after publishing a book called Beau Clown, which described a degenerate clan of peasants. One review from 1958 called it “a crawling compost heap of a novel” while praising its “dirty-faced innocence”. Yiyun found personal papers that revealed Grimault had been sent to an English finishing school where the headmistress discovered that the girl was not only uncouth but illiterate. So was the novel a hoax? There have been suggestions that Grimault was helped by the village postmaster, which captured Yiyun’s imagination and inspired this fictionalised version.

It marks an interesting shift for Yiyun, whose previous four books have been more directly inspired by her own life. Her early novels were set against the grey cultural landscape of communist China, where she was born (she moved to the US in her twenties). In 2012 she suffered a nervous breakdown, and when she got back to writing, she embraced the first person and started to write about herself. Her deeply affecting 2019 novel, Where Reasons End, drew on the suicide of her 16-year-old son in 2017.

Here she ranges far beyond her comfort zone to bleak mid-century France and you can feel the stretch. There are visceral descriptions of blood, shit and maggots, but at times Yiyun’s struggles to flesh out her unsettling account of manipulation, exploitation and co-dependence. There are some memorable lines – “We were the perfect pair, one seeking all that the other could experience” – that capture the girls’ intense friendship but, in general, Yiyun relies too much on statements rather than narrative immersion.

The Agnès who narrates the novel is now an adult living in Pennsylvania with her American husband. When she learns that Fabienne has died in childbirth at the age of 27, many years after they lost touch, she realises that she is now free to write her own version of how she became a child prodigy. She looks back at her youth, recalling the village in which she and her “ill-mannered and violent” friend were raised with “the stench and the filth, the animals running amok, and the people crazier than animals”. Both lost family members. Agnès’s brother died from the tuberculosis he brought back from a German prisoner of war camp. Fabienne, meanwhile, was left alone with her drunken father, after the death of both her mother and elder sister.

So she and Fabienne invent a world of their own, one where nonsense and reality have equal weight. The two friends define and complete each other, two halves of a whole. “Half” is a word that crops up throughout the novel: “Half of this story is hers, but she is not here to tell me what I have missed.”

[See also: Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends reveals the complexities of female relationships]

Agnes recalls how everyone else in their lives seemed peripheral to their existence, even the adults they enjoyed manipulating – who seem equally bored and disenchanted. The sad-sack postmaster, M Devaux, is fascinated by their grim notebook and agrees to help turn it into a book, passing it on to a publisher in Paris – though his motivations for getting close to Fabienne are clearly unsavoury.

But before this, Fabienne insists that Agnès pretend to be the sole author of their book, propelling her friend into the French newspapers, which hype her as a teen prodigy. As she becomes a brief literary sensation, she is offered (like the real-life Berthe Grimault) a scholarship at a finishing school in the English home counties, which is run by an ambitious woman called Mrs Townsend. She has rather unrealistic expectations of transforming Agnès “from a pigherd into a debutante”, taking her away from scrappy Fabienne and placing her among “beautiful and cultivated” girls who “were like marvellous seashells”. 

It turns out, however, that the controlling headmistress has her own scheme – she wants to be involved in writing Agnès’s next book. In one of the most powerful passages in the novel, the photographer who is capturing Agnès’s journey to fame warns her about the motivations of the adults surrounding her. “These people – I include myself in that category – we are like bees. You’re not the only flower for us. And how long can a flower stay in bloom?” To which Agnes wisely answers: “What should I do to become a bee instead of staying a flower?”

Elsewhere, the book relies on more heavy-handed imagery (oranges, knives, minerals, pigs) to convey the relationship dynamics in the story, especially between the girls. But one of the main problems with The Book of Goose is that it cannot avoid comparisons with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. I can’t recall a recent novel that has been so obviously in the shadow of another. It’s uncanny how closely the characters of Agnès and Fabienne map on to Lenu and Lila, one receiving the education, the other staying behind.

Neither author shies away from the nastier aspects of childhood and poverty but where Ferrante is fiery and passionate, Yiyun is colder, more remote. You would think the strangeness of Yiyun’s sensibility would be enough to separate her creation from Ferrante’s world, but the story never gains momentum and the prose fails to cast the right spell. “We’re life-real now, not game-real,” Fabienne says towards the end, one of many remarks that just don’t ring true of a teenager in the 1950s. There is so much that’s promising in this story – but it has to count as a missed opportunity.

The Book of Goose
By Yiyun Li
Fourth Estate, 368pp, £14.99

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[See also: Julian Barnes’s baffling new novel attempts to imagine a world without Christianity]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink