in­spir­ing tales

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TV - Re­view by CATHER­INE TAY­LOR Gold Boy, Emer­ald Girl

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

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