The title story in Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is not its centrepiece. Instead, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" comes last in a collection of nine stories, and, while one of the book's most effective, is also one of its shortest. That seems apt, given that this book – the third from its 38-year-old Chinese-American author – is host to a fiction that elevates reticence, a kind of unshowy plainness, to the status of an aesthetic. It's a strategy that makes for stories that at their best muster a potent emotional force, but can also tantalise and then withdraw, to leave us feeling that something crucial has been held back.
Li is only five years into a remarkable career. She arrived in the US from China aged 23 and graduated from the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop before her 2005 first collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize. In 2006 Granta named her one of its 20 Best Young American Novelists, and this year The New Yorker – where Li's stories often appear – featured her on its "20 writers under 40" list. Safe to say, then, that Gold Boy has provoked much pre-publication literary talk.
The subject of so much anticipation is a book that constructs artful, spare anatomies of broken lives. In "Kindness", the novella-length first story, a 41-year-old woman, "living in the same one bedroom flat where I have always lived" moves fluidly between recollections of her national service and her lonely childhood. In "A Man Like Him", a teacher who cares for his elderly mother becomes obsessed by a local man publicly accused of adultery. In "Prison", a Chinese-American couple return to China in search of a surrogate mother when their teenage daughter dies in a car crash. Meanwhile, the great changes that have overtaken contemporary China across the past decade form a distant, fascinating backdrop.
To read any one of these stories is to receive proof of Li's mastery. They are exquisitely made, and function with a vast, metronomic precision that eschews anything inessential. That project is served well by her prose, which is so quiet as to be almost prayerful: after the death of their daughter, time for the couple in "Prison" stretches itself "into a long tunnel, thin-aired and never ending". In "Kindness" the narrator speculates that "it is our nature to carve a heaven out of those places to which we can never return". By these means Li makes a fiction able to accommodate the oblique, sublimated epiphanies to which she builds.
If there is to be a criticism, it must be that Li's very virtues – her precision, her great artfulness – can seem to overtake her. That is, the lesser stories can feel constrained by craft, somehow not fully free. There is, indeed, something emerald-like about them: they are beautiful but also crystalline-hard, opaque, and we are left feeling that we have seen only their wonderful surface, and not their heart. Li is a writer talented enough to dare to push a little harder against the constraints of the Chekhovian short-story form as she would have learnt it at Iowa.
Still, it seems hard to hold Li to account for not doing what she never set out to do. At their best, these stories manage an unbearable power. The end of "Kindness" draws together, in just a few lines, a lifetime of unarticulated emotional pain, while the last few paragraphs of "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" – in which a couple in their late thirties make a marriage of convenience – are devastating.
Our young selves, Li seems to say in these stories, are too often poor guardians of our older ones. It's a truth; and in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, it's a truth beautifully expressed.
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