A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS

Stories

By Yiyun Li

Random House. 203 pp. $21.95

Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a remarkable debut -- as acute and authentic-sounding about the domestic effect of cross-cultural change in modern China as Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies was about India. Also like that book, it's one of those rare short story collections where you find yourself reading one perfectly realized gem after the next.

Li -- who grew up in Beijing, came to America to study medicine and entered the Iowa Writers' Workshop after taking a master's degree in immunology from the University of Iowa -- writes with the kind of brisk clarity you see in, say, the Japanese novelists Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima. She gets down to business quickly, sketching characters with swift, deft strokes, immediately setting them off on journeys that are as compelling as they are tragic. There's a strong streak of Flannery O'Connor here, too; metaphors for life, faith and desire are realized through violence, and the often bloody fate of these characters has a richly revelatory power.

These natives and exiles of post-Mao, post-Tiananmen China are victims of tradition and change, of old barbarities and recent upheavals. Some of them have grown up singing love songs to the Communist Party -- "The Party is dearer than my own mother," goes one; "My mother only gives me a body. It is the Party who gives me a soul" -- and now see the influences of capitalism everywhere. Elderly people play the stock market, and young people leave for America, where cultural norms against divorce, homosexuality and abortion are far more relaxed.

Tradition, however, is as strong as ever and has a way of hunting these characters down. Nowhere is this more true than with marriage, which serves as a kind of binding theme of these stories. Li contrasts the failed unions of the young with the domestic hells of their parents, both becoming so accustomed to unhappiness that they make a culture of their own misery.

That's certainly the case with Sansan, the schoolteacher in "Love in the Marketplace," who receives an offer of marriage from Tu, the man she lost earlier to her best friend. Sansan's mother urges her to forget the past, but she refuses; she has banked her entire life on the all-or-nothing proposition of being Tu's first and only, a point she makes with bloody emphasis in a horrifying and starkly effective final scene. In "The Arrangement," a man holds his marriage together by avoiding it as much as possible -- and leaving his sickly, frigid, vicious wife to the care of a long-suffering friend.

In the title story, a father tries to patch things up with his recently divorced, estranged daughter, whom he wants to see remarried. "Women in their marriageable twenties and early thirties are like lychees that have been picked from the tree," he advises her. "Each passing day makes them less fresh and less desirable, and only too soon will they lose their value, and have to be gotten rid of at a sale price." What he doesn't know is that his daughter sees through his illusions about his own life and knows what a sham his own marriage has been.

"After a Life" follows the dual stories of Mr. Su and Mr. Fong, elderly Chinese gents who meet each other at the "stockbrokerage" and are both mired in burdensome lives that go against prevailing convention. Mr. Fong uses Mr. Su to cover for an affair, which threatens to reveal the hidden secret of Mr. Su and his wife: an adult daughter with cerebral palsy, whom they keep locked away in a room for fear of revealing their shame to the neighbors. "Life is not much different from the stock market," Mr. Su thinks. "You invest in a stock and you stick, and are stuck, to the choice, despite all the possibilities of other mistakes."

"Son" vaguely calls to mind O'Connor's story "The Enduring Chill" and seems to have a touch of her faith as well; it's written with a cool objectivity that is just a shade short of openly devout. Han, living in California, returns home to China to visit his mother and discovers she has given up Marx for Jesus. Han tries to convince her that she has merely exchanged one false god for another -- an argument that will not only bring terrible consequences but will force Han, who is gay, to realize that his mother is living her convictions with far more courage than he can live his own.

Several stories directly address the human costs of life under a brutal dictatorship. The best, "Immortality," follows the fate of a child who looks like Mao, which becomes first his blessing and then his curse. The story captures 20th-century China in all of its false hopes, terrors and (speaking of violent metaphors) emasculation, and the narrative voice is perfect: It's told by an anonymous voice in the crowd -- a crowd that believes what everyone believes, which is also what it is ordered to believe from on high.

Each of these stories takes you to a different place, and each feels fresh, wise and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes away. *

Rodney Welch frequently reviews books for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.