Thursday, January 17, 2013

One is the Loneliest Number

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
I picked up Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl on a whim before my trip to India, and luckily for me, that was a very good decision.  I am surprised and a little sad that there aren't more reviews of this short story in a quick search of my Google Reader subscriptions.  Here's my small attempt to remedy that, starting with the surprisingly well-written book description from Amazon:

Book Description
The country portrayed here is the China of the 21st century, where economic development has led to new situations unknown to previous decades: residents in a shabby apartment building witnessing in awe the real estate boom; a local entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist sheltering women in trouble in her mansion; a group of retired women discovering fame late in their lives as private investigators specialising in extramarital affairs; a young woman setting up a blog to publicise the alleged affair of her father. 

Underneath the veneer of prosperity and opportunity, however, lie the struggles of characters trying to reorient themselves in the unfamiliar landscapes of modern China: a widower, reminiscing about his wife, confronts a young unmarried woman purchasing condoms in a pharmacy; a new wife makes a plea to have a baby with her husband who was to be executed only to discover that she has become an instant celebrity; a middle-aged couple in America, who, upon losing their only daughter, return to their hometown in China to hire a young woman as a surrogate mother. These characters' fates are affected as much by the historical moments in which they reside as by the choices they make. Yiyun Li's new collection of stories is a report from the front-line of a changing world, and confirms Li to be a writer not to be missed.

This collection was lovely.  Two stories - the first one and the last one - stand out most deeply in my memory.

The first story, "Kindness," is told from the point of view of Moyan, a lonely old woman recounting her time in the Chinese Army, giving us details about the lieutenant who most influenced her, the other girls that she shared her life with but never really got to know, the tasks she was assigned and completed without caring about them, her trips home to visit her parents and old teachers.  It was a brilliantly written story with a highly engaging narrator about just how isolated a person can become even when surrounded by others, and even when others attempt to break through the protective covering.  I found it very affecting as I read it in Bangalore, a city that has grown at an insane rate over the course of my lifetime and where privacy is very hard to find.  It's often hard to empathize with such an isolated and emotionally distant person, but Moyan was portrayed so well, it was easy to love her.

The last story is the one that gives this collection its name, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and is told from the point of view of Siyu, a single woman in her mid-30s.  She's in love with her former female professor, Dai, and so you can't help but be moved when she relates the story of Dai setting Siyu up with her own gay son.  Siyu goes on the date and sees the inevitability of the rest of her life, relating it in a way that is both touching and poignant.

One of my favorites was about a married couple in the US that lost a child and decide to get a surrogate mother in China.  The relationship that forms between the surrogate mother and the woman hoping for a child is so complicated, and it's amazing how well Li can relate such a difficult relationship using such sparse prose.

And all the stories in this collection are told in the same simple language.  Li touches on just how lonely life can be, and how difficult it is to take that step to reach out to someone else and form a connection - and how those connections can sometimes be wonderful and rich and sometimes they can sting so horribly.  It's a timely theme, and one that resonates across cultures while illuminating modern Chinese life especially.


  1. It's hard to believe that I didn't read one short story collection in 2012, but now I am hankering to do a little bit better this year, and this collection seems like an amazing place to start. I find your reflections on this collection to be very astute, and would love to read it at some time. I particularly love that you mention the tenuousness of reaching out to someone, be it a successful or unsuccessful venture. Excellent review today, Aarti!!

  2. Wasn't this wonderful?! I'm a big fan of Li & hope she comes out w a new book soon.

  3. The title story was my favourite. So melancholy, and so moving.

  4. I've been interested in picking up some more short story collections - this one sounds like a good place to start.


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