I thought it will be great if I could write a more focused review, so I am trying out a new format here today.
What it is: A collection of short stories mostly revolving around lonely Chinese characters who are grasping at happier future, but are grounded in the bleak realities of everyday life.
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (金童玉女) simply means a pair of good looking couple in Chinese. There is a story about an old woman looking back at the two most influential women in her life, Professor Shan and Lieutenant Wei whose Kindness (the tile of the story) binds one to the past as obstinately as love does and wonder if Professor Shan is wrong to think that without love one can be free. There is residents who live in an old residential flat watching the in awe of the property boom; a group of retired women discovering fame as private investigators, a teacher who can’t bear to be labled “A man like him” who hope to persuade a father to sue his daughter who had defamed him of his extra-marital affairs in her blog. At “Prison” a pair of old couple who lost their only daughter made arrangement to search for a young woman in China as surrogate mother.
Why I read it: I raved about YiYun Li’s short story collections at A thousand years of good prayers and would like to know if this one lives up to it’s precedent.
What I thought: This book falls on the darker side of the spectrum as all YiYun Li’s books. It is dark in subtle ways, some controversial twist and stops short of going into full-on depression mode. The characters are left with some kind of imperfect hope. It reminds me somewhat of Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing on Unaccustomed Earth, which is one of my favourite short stories collection.
A lot of the stories in the book illustrate the ways that the traditions and values of the past have settled into an uneasy relationship with contemporary lifestyle. YiYun Li is brilliant in creating two sets of characters in each short story that represents the OLD and the New China. My favorite stories were “Kindness” about a girl call Moyan who find herself adopted and detached from her family, seek solace from Professor Shan who unveil a world of western literature and Lieutenant Wei at the camp where Moyan was trained to be the Communist Army. There is this subtle pain and sadness, and the words that appears within this chapter which is searing and true. This chapter is the longest of all at 80 pages.
In“Sweeping Past,” it talks about an elderly Chinese woman thinking back on friendship lost with her sworn sisters; a chapter that best describes the regret of a friendship that was so close yet fall apart. I thought the story “House Fire” about 6 Chinese Aunties working as a PI could spun into a detective series of its own and I was intrigued to find out if the scandal prove to be true, only to have the women disagree amongst themselves and each thinking of their own yearning. Very anticlimax, reminds me why I hate short story when I am left in a cliffhanger.
“he who had chosen not to claim the love had left no space for others to claim it..” – Moyan page 44 “Kindness”
“But animosity is easier to live with than sympathy, and indifference leaves less damage in the long run.” - Moyan page 56 “Kindness”
“My mother used to say that people in this country were very good at inventing crimes, but, better still, we were good at inventing punishments to go with them,” Teacher Fei page 98 “A Man like him”
“Life was crowded with many small worries that could replace a friendship with indifference – meals to be prepared, diapers to be changed and washed, critical in-laws and bosses to appease, illness and exhaustion to recover from…” – Ailin page 193, “Sweeping Past”
“You could feel trapped by the wrong man, Professor Dai said……You would have to wish for his death every day of your marriage, she said, but once the wish was granted by a miracle, you would never be free of your own cruelty.” – Professor Dai page 220 “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”
“They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.” last page 221.
Getting the final word in: Overall I thought the collection was a little uneven with a magnificent first story and surprising bits and bobs in between but Li’s writing is as elegant as ever. The highest compliment I can give to YiYun Li is this: one usually experience this in a story set in a foreign culture, i.e. the alienation of emotions lost in translation or dialogues that seems to belong to another world. YiYun Li is an exception. The only one that I came across, who can write stories entirely about Chinese characters in an all-Chinese setting and still made readers, and myself truly, genuinely relate to the character’s experience at a deeper level.
If this book were a bite-sized desert, it would be: like having a wonderful little spoon of ice-creams only to have it melted very quickly at the middle before you could reach the end; with occasional surprise discovery of walnuts nuggets or raisin that delights you.
Hardback. Publisher: Fourth Estate 2010; Length: 221 pages; Setting: Contemporary China. Source: Reading Library. Finished reading at: 30 June 2012.
Other books by YiYunLi reviewed: