Be moved by Gold Boy, Emerald Girl from Catherine Taylor.
Author: Yiyun Li Publisher: Fourth Estate, 221 pages
YIYUN Li originally emigrated from Beijing to the United States to study medicine, yet ended up a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That medicine’s loss is literature’s gain has been amply shown by her first collection of stories, the multi-award-winning A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers and a novel, The Vagrants.
In this second collection, comparisons of Li to Chekhov and to William Trevor hold true – the economy of words, the melancholic lives, a certain resigned pragmatism. In Li’s case, the bruising decades-long aftermath of the Cultural Revolution ensures that political resonance and brutal realities are omnipresent. The drabness of the landscape, mudcoloured or sombre grey with a rare flash of red azaleas, echoes this acutely.
Young female Chinese army recruits, homesick and underfed, are entranced by their first sight of snow – yet freezing conditions back at barracks mean that one by one they all succumb to frostbite. Three giggling girls, “sworn sisters” despite the authorities’ denouncement of acts of bonding as symptomatic of a “noxious feudal legacy”, are charmingly captured on film by an amiable photographer. Now in her 60s, one of the trio chillingly recalls that she was “the first one in town to be beaten to death by the young Red Guards”.
Li pays close attention to the older generation, baffled by the shrill moral rectitude of their privileged grandchildren, Americabound on generous scholarships. “I have nothing to say about this world,” explains a 90-year-old who has witnessed almost a century of upheaval, in response to a teenager posting a vitriolic blog to shame her adulterous father.
Prison is a highly disturbing allegorical piece about ownership of body and soul, in which a couple attempt to assuage their grief for their dead daughter by paying a young illiterate woman to act as a surrogate mother.
In the title story, the Gold Boy and Emerald Girl – mismatched because their romantic impulses lie in opposing directions – must decide whether they will join together to “make a world that will accommodate their loneliness”.
There is so much loneliness in these tales, so much death and departure. Li is an exceptional writer, holding up a mirror not only to the Chinese diaspora but through it to the entire tarnished world. What is reflected back is humbling and inspiring. – © The Daily Telegraph UK 2010