Memory is a one-way lane. Going down it, we summon faces from the past: old loves, lost friends, long-vanished relatives, our own young selves. We seldom imagine that our faces will haunt others in return. Or so says Yiyun Li in this sleek, powerful novel about the weight of memory, the brunt of loss and the myriad ways the past can crimp a soul.
In the short space of nine years, Li has produced an impressive crop of books — all in her adopted language of English. Emigrating from Beijing at 24, she set out to pursue a doctorate in medicine at the University of Iowa. But somewhere along the way, her imagination took flight, and within two years, she found herself writing, merging memories of China with impressions of the new world to which she had come.
In time, she left medicine to attend the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and soon after began writing stories for publication. Her first collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” (2005), took the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her novel “The Vagrants,” in which a rebellious young woman is sentenced to death in the provincial town of Muddy River, brought into sharp relief the jittery period that preceded the Tiananmen Square uprising. Her second collection of stories, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” depicted a China free of cliched exoticism. In 2007, Granta named Li one of the 21 best American novelists younger than 35. Three years later, the New Yorker confirmed the choice. By then, filmmaker Wayne Wang had turned two of Li’s short stories into feature-length movies. In fewer than a dozen years, she had become the embodiment of the American dream.
Little wonder, then, that she has decided to set much of her new novel, “Kinder Than Solitude,” in America. Moving seamlessly between California, New England and China, Li tells the story of four childhood friends who have grown up in the bustle of Beijing during the 1990s. But when one is poisoned — possibly by someone in the circle — the group drifts apart, numbed by the experience.
The victim is Shaoai, a brash, cynical but keenly intelligent young woman of 22 whose cruelties have been felt by each of the three younger friends. As inseparable as that trio has been, the tragedy of Shaoai’s demise — and guilty memories of what may have prompted it — sends them spinning to faraway universes. Boyang, a genial young boy, grows up to be one of Beijing’s “diamond bachelors,” a rich, highly eligible but soulless businessman, riding the crest of China’s economic miracle. Ruyu, the beautiful orphan sent by her grandaunts to live in Shaoai’s house, ends up marrying a wife-beater, running off to America and drifting through life as a housekeeper, salesgirl and nanny. Moran, the sunny girl with a ready laugh, marries then divorces an American twice her age, finds work in a drab chemical lab in Massachusetts and is never quite comfortable in her skin.
Li’s novel skillfully ravels each skein of the story, cutting back and forth in time as well as between East and West, building tension as it goes. The clean, chiseled beauty of her prose draws us deeper and deeper into these tormented characters, revealing the full extent of who they are and what has gone on between them.
Like an intricately wrought Chinese tangram, every piece will have its logical place in the final story. But logic, as we learn, will not answer all the questions. There will be a deeper, altogether human explanation for why things have turned out as they have. Shaoai is not the only one with poison in her veins. Toxins have coursed through every one of her potential assailants.
For Shaoai, the damage is physiological, shutting down her body’s faculties one by one until she is trapped in bloated flesh, where she will languish for 21 years before her murder is finally consummated. For the others, the poisons will be more subtle. Each will erect an emotional wall, a hermetic husk, and, in the end, each will be as unrecognizable as the victim.
Boyang, the child most eager to love, will find himself gradually unable to feel much of anything. Ruyu, the child who craves tenderness, will seek nothing so much as a blessed void. Moran, who has always cherished her independence, will circle back to an old obligation. But as Li puts it, “Life is a battle that the lesser ones do not have the luxury of quitting midway.” In time, one by one, the characters will inch out of their penumbras and into the light of day.
Theirs is a China we hardly know: a place where Catholics keep the faith in spite of the crippling consequences, where Porsches hum down highways and jars of Maxwell House beckon from television screens, where Tang is savored at breakfast and parents work at Big Pharma. Where life’s worst hazards are found in the confines of one’s mind.
Shepherding her readers through this labyrinth, Li gives us gifts of gorgeous prose. “Swifts skimmed the water’s surface with their sharp tails,” she tells us. “Cicadas trilled in the willow trees. A man pedaled a flatbed tricycle along the lakefront road, singing out the brand names of beers he kept on chunks of ice, and was stopped here and there by a child running out of an alley with money in his raised hand, sent to buy a bottle or two for his elders.”
In a few strokes of the brush, we are given a character’s essential nature: “Uncle, reticent, with a sad smile on his face, had come to the dinner table in a threadbare undershirt, but had hurried back to the bedroom when Aunt had frowned at him, and returned in a neatly buttoned shirt.”
The aggregate is a carefully assembled, sharply observed world filled with achingly real characters. Rarely are ordinary humans given such eloquent witness.
Arana, a writer at large for The Washington Post and the former editor in chief of Book World, is the author of “American Chica,” “Lima Nights” and a biography of the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar.
Kinder Than Solitude
By Yiyun Li
Random House. 312 pp. $26