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Fiction

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by YiYun Li

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.

Favorite lines:

“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.

Rating : 

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:

A thousand years of good prayers

The Vagrants

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by YiYun Li

  1. I like the more focused style, especially the last question. I can’t do focused myself, so I always admire others who can!

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | July 1, 2012, 5:06 pm
  2. Sam,
    ahh..I try. I am unfocused too. So with quick headers perhaps I could write a review which is much more focused and quick! Time is really of premium these days since I have taken more on at work..

    Posted by JoV | July 1, 2012, 5:09 pm
  3. this sounds like a book Id get on with I like sound of the subject matter in the short stories ,I Lahri’s style of short story so if there like that I bound to get on with them ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | July 1, 2012, 9:13 pm
  4. I kinda’ like your new review format. Was it easier to write to more directed topics? I also love the cover, but don’t think this is a book that would work for me

    Posted by Helen | July 1, 2012, 9:44 pm
    • Helen,
      I think it directed my thought and as a result I could produce a review more efficiently. Also I think it is easier to get the message across to you all! Thanks for letting me know.

      Posted by JoV | July 3, 2012, 6:41 am
  5. Very interesting new format, particularly the last question…It sounds like a lovely collection.
    do visit :)

    Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal | July 2, 2012, 1:19 pm
  6. I love the new format! I kind of think you have to spend more time on it, lol, than less. ;-?) But I am a fan of Yiyun Li – we don’t get many of her books here, sadly. And if there are, it’s too expensive. :-(

    But a beautiful review – thanks.

    Posted by Soulmuser | July 2, 2012, 1:48 pm
  7. I read only the lead story via downloading a sample of the book-I really liked it a lot-I also read her great novel, Vagrants

    Posted by Mel u | July 3, 2012, 12:06 am
  8. I like the new format, especially if it makes it easier for you. I tire of the review writing so a template helps.

    Posted by Ti | July 3, 2012, 4:44 pm
  9. I really like your structured reviewing template :-) Cleverly found! I have to side with Sam, would love to follow your example, but am just a too cluttered type of person ;-) I’m glad you wrote up a review on this book: it’s been staring at me for a while from my bookcase. About time I give it a go.

    Posted by Chinoiseries | July 7, 2012, 12:05 pm
    • Chinoiseries,
      Not as good as her first but I think the collection is still good. I love the way she writes. Makes one feel “yi-han”. ;) i look forward to hear what you think about this book.

      Posted by JoV | July 7, 2012, 1:19 pm

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  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! June 2012 « JoV's Book Pyramid - July 5, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

2013 Reading Challenge

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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