My father, on the way home, warned me gently that the chickens were too young to last more than a day or two. I built a nest for the chicks out of a shoebox and ripped newspaper, and fed them water-softened millet grains and a day later, when they looked ill, aspirin dissolved in water. Two days later they died, the one I named Dot and marked with ink on his forehead the first one to go, followed by Mushroom. I stole two eggs from the kitchen when my father went to help a neighbour fix a leaking sink – my mother was not often around in those days – and cracked them carefully, and washed away the yolks and whites; but no matter how hard I tried I could not fit the chicks back into the shells, and I can see, to this day, the half shell on Dot’s head, covering the ink spot like a funny little hat. (5)
Yiyun Li’s characters don’t die, like the chicks, but they do exist in shells that are never quite big enough or tough enough. Even her brash characters, like the philanthropic Mrs Jin who blooms on the miseries of others, or the blundering Meilan, trying to force a grieving widower into a relationship, are occasionally seen slantwise. In many different ways, some with infinite care and some with brusque shoving, the people in these stories are making a world that would accommodate their loneliness. (221) The parents and grandparents of her characters grew up in Mao’s China; much has changed with the introduction of a crude capitalism and the spread of the internet, but still they are shackled by social opinion, custom and political control. An adulterous father can be publicly shamed by his daughter on her blog; unmarried girls still face the contempt of married women when they buy condoms; shamed women think themselves lucky to find a much older man to marry; poor mothers hand their children over to someone richer.
The long opening story, a novella really, Kindness, is a wonderfully rich and subtle, many-layered piece of work. The title story Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, is another that will stay with me. Interestingly, like Kindness, it deals with a charismatic older woman, a kind of Snow Queen who lays a frost on the life of the young girl she befriends.
Yiyun Li lives in the US, writes in English and apparently doesn’t allow her books to be translated into Chinese. This has resulted in criticism of her style and her attitude, she says, from Chinese immigrants of her own generation in America.
A compatriot emailed, pointing out how my language is neither lavish nor lyrical, as a real writer’s language should be; you only write simple things in simple English, you should be ashamed of yourself, he wrote in a fury… (London Review of Books, 39:12, p. 34)
No, she shouldn’t.