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Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li (thoughts)

September 22, 2011

In July, I read Li’s novel The Vagrants and was delighted to find a novel set in China that didn’t reek of misogynism! So when I saw her short story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl on Netgalley (it was actually released in hardcover last year, but the paperback edition comes out next week; isn’t the cover stunning?), I snatched it up. And I was delighted to find that I loved it even more; in fact, Yiyun Li puts me in mind of Chimamanda Nogzi Adichie, and I will be getting my hands on her debut, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, very soon (I usually don’t consider an author a favourite until I’ve read three books by them). And good news for those who didn’t like the violence in The Vagrants: this collection is much more quiet, with a focus on characters’ emotional lives and nary a physical altercation in sight.

Sometimes, short story collections are uneven, but Gold Boy, Emerald Girl was uniformly stellar. It opens with “Kindness,” a long story, almost a novella, in which a forty-something woman reflects back on her youthful experience as a conscript in the Red Army. The nostalgic tone and precise emotional renderings will be familiar to Ishiguro fans; here’s a taste from the first page:

I have no hobby that takes me outside my flat during my spare time. I do not own a television set, but I have a roomful of books at least half a century older than I am. I have never in my life hurt a soul, or if I have done any harm unintentionally the pain I inflicted was the most trivial kind, forgotten the moment it was felt-if indeed it could be felt in any way. But that cannot be a happy life, or much of a life at all, you might say. That may very well be true. “Why are you unhappy?” To this day, if I close my eyes I can feel Lieutenant Wei’s finger under my chin, lifting my face to the spring night. “Tell me, how can we make you happy?”

Isn’t her writing wonderful? Don’t you want to know more? I wouldn’t say this is the happiest of books; most of the stories are about people, usually women, who are older and have somehow managed to miss their ‘moments’ in life. There are several that present moral dilemmas (including a fascinating one involving surrogate motherhood), which Li leaves up to the reader to ‘solve.’ And yet, when I turned the last page, I didn’t find myself sad, just thoughtful. It’s the mark of a powerful writer when characters from short stories stay in my head, popping into my thoughts weeks after I’ve finished reading about them. And this collection did just that. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves elegant fiction, or memorable characters with detailed emotional lives, or loves reading international fiction that transports them to another culture (Li grew up in Beijing, moved to the US in 1996, and still lives here: she writes in English, but there’s no sense that she’s ‘exoticising’ her writing for a Western audience). As someone who has read a decent amount of Chinese fiction and found it often difficult to really connect (Eileen Chang being the exception that proves the rule), I consider Li a treasure! I imagine her photograph might be appearing in my sidebar by the end of the year. ;)

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (Hessler’s an American who went to China in the 90s with the Peace Corps and never left, eventually becoming a journalist. He’s written three nonfiction books about contemporary Chinese life, and they’re all marvelous…I picked this one pretty much at random. Definitely pick him up if you’re at all interested in modern China!)
  • A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom (Another modern short story collection with elegant prose and a wonderful focus on emotions.)
  • The Long March by Shuyun Sun (A nonfiction account of Mao’s long march by a Chinese journalist…although it covers an earlier period that when Li’s stories are set, I think knowing more about one of the essential stories of Communist China would enhance anyone’s reading experience of modern Chinese fiction!)
  • Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (Since I mentioned her, another wonderful Chinese author who emigrated to the US as an adult! I think it’d be neat to compare Chang’s early twentieth century setting to Li’s later one, as well as Chang’s southern Shanghai/Hong Kong focus to Li’s northern Beijing background. That being said, Chang’s stories tend to have more depressing endings!)
  • The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer (Another nonfiction book by an American expat who served in the Peace Corps, Meyer does a wonderful job of bringing Beijing, where several of Li’s stories are set, to life.)
18 Comments leave one →
  1. lubylou12 permalink
    September 22, 2011 7:43 am

    I’ve been trying to read more short stories, these sound wonderfull and your right the cover is stunning.

  2. September 22, 2011 9:38 am

    The Vagrants was awesome and the excerpt you pulled from this one was incredibly beautiful. Now I really, really want this. And I agree with your descriptions “elegant” and “powerful”. And I have been meaning to read something by Eileen Chang and your encouragement seals the deal.

    I likely won’t get there soon (I am trying to finish at least half my books on hand before importing new ones), but I will get there. And there’s the library, so maybe I’ll do that to get them sooner….

  3. September 22, 2011 9:44 am

    This sounds really good. Great review, Eva!

  4. September 22, 2011 10:40 am

    wow! i’m goign to look for this book. sounds incredible and i’ve been reading more stories lately so sounds like a great fit. what high praise fromyou! :-)

  5. Sarah permalink
    September 22, 2011 4:07 pm

    I’m in complete agreement Eva, Yiyun Li is treasure! I started with her short stories which like yourself I thought avoided the exoticising trap and instead simply and memorably captured people’s lives. I’m looking forward to reading The Vagrants.

  6. Sarah permalink
    September 22, 2011 4:14 pm

    As a postcript, I recently listened to an interesting interview with Li, who talks about a favourite Chinese author, Shen Congwen which others might enjoy.

    • September 23, 2011 8:08 am

      Thanks for the link & heads up on another Chinese author! My library has one of his books, originally published in the 30s: I think it might be neat to read it along w a Pearl Buck novel I was already planning on picking up. :D

  7. September 22, 2011 4:39 pm

    I saw that you have enjoyed some of Peter Hessler’s work; I saw him when he came to TTU for a talk last year, and he was excellent. And then, tonight after work, I am off to the library where his latest non-fiction about China has arrived… I have really enjoyed all his work. He is married to another writer, Leslie Chang, but I’m afraid her stuff is not the quite the same level as his. Anyhow, always happy to see another Hessler reader.

    liz in texas

  8. September 22, 2011 5:07 pm

    Oh yes I really do love the cover! I’m glad that this was something you found yourself able to connect with, unexpectedly. It sounds like a wonderful read.

  9. September 22, 2011 10:21 pm

    That cover is beautiful! And comparing an author to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sells me immediately.

    Adding this one to my list, thanks!

  10. September 24, 2011 11:34 am

    “she writes in English, but there’s no sense that she’s ‘exoticising’ her writing for a Western audience” Well said Eva. I often has to step back and check if it really is a Chinese writer who wrote the piece, because it flows so fluidly and I was blown away by her short stories collection “Thousand years of prayer” but I’m not so taken by her “The Vagrant”.. that disappoints me a little but I hope to pick this one up soon and wow, what an amazing recommendations about the world of China, I’ll surely look them up! Take good care of yourself Eva.

  11. September 24, 2011 2:27 pm

    I’ve never heard about her, but from the quote you shared her writing style seems fantastic, I have to read something by her.

  12. September 25, 2011 10:03 am

    Wow, a comparison to Adichie? I’m sold! This collection has been added to my wish list!

  13. October 5, 2011 4:22 pm

    I so want to read anything by this author. She sounds positively brilliant and I;m such a fan of short stories. Thanks for the review.


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