Growing up as a baby boomer in U.S. one experienced great changes, from civil rights, music, and now China looming in the horizon. It was a time of idealism, protests against Vietnam War, and environmentalism. Yet it is a disappointment that boomer generation wind up as Yuppies, Reagan democrats, and now Tea Partiers. For a Chinese American like myself any news about China and other overseas Chinese are treasured. I feel a sense of shared glory of success of other Chinese Americans like I M Pei, Maya Lin, and Jeremy Lin. Thus my ear perked up when I heard a radio interview mentioned Yiyun Li. I was further intrigued when she was introduced as a MacArthur genius recipient, and she was praised by Salman Rushdie as a writer. To me Nobel Literature Prize is mostly politics, and MacArthur Award is much more romantic. I decided to read her book.
Within a few pages I was hooked and finished her book in a week. The story started with the funeral of Shaoai, she was poisoned more than 20 years previously around 1989. In flashbacks of 3 teenagers, Boyang, Ruyu, and Moran, then and after. Moran who has a crush on Boyang, and Ruyu who Boying has a crush on both came to U.S.. It would seem to be a simple triangle love story with the infamous poison case as a backdrop. Most reviewers while praising the writing style treated it as such and seem somewhat disappointed it was only peripherally related to events of ’89. Shaoai was about 5 years older than the others and was a college student and was involved in the ’89 protest.
What Yiyun Li excels is her facility in English language. I am surprised that she only came to U.S. for her doctorate in cell biology before switching to writing. Some compare her to Chekov. I would compare her to Dostoyevsky in her use of interior dialects. One reads Dostoyevsky and immediately understand what his vision of Russia, honor, strength, and patriotism. One reads Yiyun Li and her vision of modern China, warps and all shines through.
As she said in one of her interviews readers put their own experiences in interpreting what the writer tries to impart in her writing. To me the story is very much more than the poisoning or triangle love story. The poisoning of Shaoai was very much the metaphor of the events of ’89. It lingered and poisoned the atmosphere for more than 20 years in China, and hopefully her death meant the lifting and coming to terms and liberating from it. She sprinkle the clues in the book most reviewers missed. The books Shaoai read, by Sartre, Camus and other existential writers, her rape of Ruyu, and telling Ruyu she would appreciate and understand it will be good for her. To me it was obvious the forcing of democracy and other values on an unready China. Boyang, Ruyu, and Moran represent different facets of China. Shaoai represents western values unleased by modernization. In the end the author didn’t assign blame on the tragedy as event does have a momentum of its own, and the author hope toward resolution.
The only criticism I would like to mention is her slight to tiger mom. I understand she disagree to Amy Chua’s child rearing philosophy, but slurring her ethnicity was uncalled for.