“Strangers, closer to my heart than my neighbors and acquaintances, loved tragic and strange loves and died tragic and strange deaths, and Professor Shan’s unperturbed voice made it all seem natural.” On closing Yiyun Li’s new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl , you will recognize that feeling, described by the narrator of the first story as she recollects afternoons spent listening to work by Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence. Moyan, living alone in a tiny flat on the outskirts of Beijing, marvels at the strange intimacy she has found with characters who are “not my people.” In an unperturbed voice, which has mastered limpidly beautiful English, Yiyun Li writes of people who fear tragic and strange fears and hope tragic and strange hopes in China. How alien they seem until, quietly, they come to inhabit your heart and mind.
Just about all the characters here-as in Li’s novel, The Vagrants (2009) and her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2006)-are haunted by a terror of betrayal, the mark of a twisted history that Li, who came to the US in 1996 at 24, grew up with as a child. That terror in turn inspires circuitous quests for loyalty, which lead to unexpected places and insights. Moyan barricades herself against “any gesture of affection” that might ensnare her wary soul, even as she pays tenacious tribute in memory to the few people-Professor Shan among them–who reached out to her, moved by pain of their own.
In “Prison,” Yilan sets out at 47 to have a baby after her teenage daughter dies in a car accident in the U.S. At her husband’s urging, she returns to China to seek a surrogate mother and is drawn to spirited Fusang. Each woman discovers that treachery and loyalty are inextricably entwined. The three characters in the collection’s title story-a gay son and his mother and her quiet acolyte -build an alliance out of secret betrayals of their true, hidden selves. “[T]hey would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.” Such worlds, born of Li’s deep curiosity and merciful empathy, fill this collection.
Li arrived in America intending to study immunology, but it’s lucky she didn’t hesitate to shift her loyalties. She has become that most valuable of informants, a teller of stories that transcend borders.