In Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li explores the big themes—individuality, honor, family ties and love—and sets them against a richly detailed tapestry of Chinese life. Though each story takes place in modern-day China, they are formally rigorous and crafted with an elegance that harkens back to stylists like Chekhov and William Trevor. At the same time, the contemporary settings and Li’s modern sensibility bring freshness to old themes.
The nine stories take place in small villages or provincial corners of Beijing. Li’s focus is the ordinary person trapped where the demands of history, community and family collide, and characters suffer from an internalized sense of guilt or shame. Though not overtly political, Li’s stories denote the struggle between individual and community—a particularly potent subject given China’s social and political history.
In “A Man Like Him,” Teacher Fei, a lifelong bachelor, conspires to meet a man who has been publicly—and wrongfully—accused of an indiscretion. Fei has his own past troubles that he hopes will be absolved by this meeting. In “House Fire,” five friends band together to form a detective agency devoted to domestic issues. When a man comes to them for advice regarding an unsavory rumor about his wife and father-in-law, the case threatens the unity of the group and they must decide whether or not to accept it.
But Li is also interested in the way love blooms in the most unlikely places. The title story is the masterpiece in the collection—an expertly crafted work in which a professor introduces her middle-aged son to her favorite student—an action that ignores the natures of both individuals, but also opens up their lives to the possibility of happiness. Similarly, “Number 3, Garden Road” depicts a life-altering evening in the lives of two residents in a Beijing apartment house. Both moved in when the building was new, Meilan as a child, Mr. Chang as a young husband. Many years later, Meilan has returned, twice divorced, and hopes for the newly widowed Mr. Chang to notice her at the neighborhood dances. This story, with the assertive Meilan and deliberately obtuse Chang, comes the closest to humor, but it is a most gentle kind and one that draws inspiration from wise observation.
Li is ruthless in depicting the depths of her characters’ emotional shortcomings; nevertheless her lucidity and eloquence make this collection a literary
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
A stellar assortment of stories about struggles to escape and connect in contemporary China.
Since her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good PrayersÂ (2005),Â Li has become a more ambitious and nuanced storyteller: Her first novel,Â The VagrantsÂ (2009),Â was a striking cross-section of life in a small Chinese town affected by a young woman's execution; this book marks no thematic shifts, but the writing is slyer and deeper. The opening story, "Kindness," is a virtuosic novella in which a middle-aged woman recalls relationships with two crucial women in her life: a retired schoolteacher who provided a haven during the narrator's difficult childhood and the army lieutenant whose treatment of her veered from tenderness to humiliation. The narrator, writing as a 40-something, is shaken and isolated by her experiences, but also intriguingly self-aware, and Li skillfully balances this insecurity and self-regard. The remaining eight stories are shorter but no less powerful. In "Prison," a woman moves back to China from America to monitor the surrogate carrying her baby, opening up questions about servitude, class and parenthood. In "House Fire," a group of women gain celebrity for a public crusade against infidelity, but their confidence in their cause is unsettled when a timid man arrives for help. In "The Proprietress," a woman running a store near a prison arrogantly basks in the power she wields over her patrons. In the closing title story, a young man and women are pressured into an untenable but inevitable relationship. The prevailing emotion among Li's characters is entrapment: They are routinely feeling locked into relationships or predicaments, sometimes by the state, but usually by family or their own lack of will.
Further proof that Li deserves to be considered among the best living fiction writers.Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Previously published in such venues as The New Yorker, the Guardian, and the San Francisco Chronicle, these nine stories are not interwoven, yet they share myriad common themes. Opening the collection is "Kindness," in which a 41-year-old single school teacher, an adoptee, recalls the kindness of a professor and a lieutenant when she served in the military. In "A Man Like Him," readers meet 66-year-old Teacher Fei, also an adoptee and an accused pedophile who arranges to meet the father of a 19-year-old woman he sees in a magazine and on her blog post. Matchmaking and companionship are common to the title piece and "Number Three, Garden Road," while the darker and more tragic themes of death and childlessness are evident in "Prison" and "The Proprietress." "House Fire" is the one story with a more humorous premise, as six older women work together to fight deteriorating morals. (Imagine six mature Chinese women in an undercover episode of the reality show Cheaters.) VERDICT As in The Vagrants, Li's writing is a window on life's darker side, particularly in China. Recommended for any reader interested in short stories and Asian fiction.--Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L.s, Santa Ana, CA[Page 69]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
The nine brilliant stories in Li's collection (after The Vagrants) offer a frighteningly lucid vision of human fate. In the title story, motherless Siyu has long been in love with an older zoology professor, Dai, who suddenly wants Siyu, 38 and single, to marry Dai's gay 42-year-old son, Hanfeng. In "A Man Like Him," retired art teacher Fei embarks on a strange quest after reading a story about a Web site devoted to shaming a man who left his wife. Fei seeks out the man, needing to confide to him his own sordid brush with infamy. The collection's magnificent centerpiece is "Kindness," the novella-length reminiscence of a spiritually despondent math teacher named Moyan, whose bleak story begins with the emotional starvation she suffered from her adoptive parents and grimly continues over the years as two older women--an English teacher and Moyan's army superior--attempt, unsuccessfully, to reach out to her. Li's description of army life, and particularly her description of Moyan's regiment's march across Mount Dabi, is a bravura piece of writing, but it's Moyan's evolution from pitiable to borderline heroic (in her own way) that is Li's greatest achievement. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.