I discovered Yiyun Li’s beautiful collection of short stories through this nice review at A Striped Armchair. I thought it sounded like the kind of book I would really enjoy, especially with the comparison to Ishiguro, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I found this a very moving collection. Because each story has such a powerful effect, I didn’t feel I could race through them, one after another. I deliberately spaced out my reading of the stories, so that each one had time to linger in my mind. In fact, I would like to return to them, as although the writing is very easy to read, at the same time each story seems dense, full of details about each character’s life.
The stories are about life in 21st century China, although often the characters are looking back and reflecting on their lives in earlier times. There are some recurring themes: children being born in unusual circumstances, for example involving surrogacy and adoption, and marriages made for reasons other than love. The stories often bring together tradition and modernity; for example, in A Man Like Him, a young woman sets up a blog to denounce her father for ‘the immoral act of having taken a mistress’. House Fire has a similar theme, as a group of older women set up a detective agency to help women whose husbands are having affairs and end up being figures of curiosity filmed for a documentary series, as they uphold the values of another era. In one of my favourite stories, The Proprietress, a young journalist from Shanghai, a representative of modern, urban life, travels to a small town to interview Mrs Jin, who runs the general store and offers help to the women who come to visit their husbands in the nearby jail.
Sooner or later they started to talk about their men – fathers, sons, brothers, husbands – similar stories in which the women either believed in the innocence of their loved ones or were readier than the rest of the world to forgive them. Mrs Jin listened, pouring tea and handing them tissues, reminding herself what a lucky woman she was. She shed tears with them, too, and because of the hours she spent sympathising, she charged these women extra for any purchases.
I liked this story because of Mrs Jin’s moral ambiguity and because I wondered what motivated her to take some of these troubled women to live in her house and to look after them.
Many of the stories convey an uneasy feeling of time passing, often distilling many years into just a few words. Among the beautifully flowing writing, there will be a sentence that comes as a shock: ‘After that I resumed my daily visit to her flat, and I continued for the next twelve years’ or ‘It had been six years since he retired as an art teacher, nearly forty since he last painted out of free will’. Both these examples are from stories where the main character is very passive and has not really taken control of life. These stories are very poignant because they express the feeling of wasted time or unhappiness that couldn’t be easily resolved.
This is the first Chinese author I have ever read, and I did find the insights into another culture fascinating. Although the stories are set in the present and I could very much relate to some of the aspects of modern life described, they also took me into a world very different from my own and I felt that I had learned something.