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Kinder Than Solitude

Review

Kinder Than Solitude

I like to think that my friends and acquaintances are incapable of extreme acts of violence or aggression, but who can say whether extraordinary circumstances could push an otherwise gentle person to unconscionable behavior? Many in the West have the luxury of maintaining only a peripheral attachment to politics. We may have strongly held beliefs, but we’re not threatened with acts of reprisal equal to those endured by citizens who live under totalitarian regimes. We don’t know how we would react in that environment, or how life in a constant state of repression would affect our psyches.

One of the most significant events of 1989, a watershed year in world politics, was the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the Chinese military killed thousands of protesters. This slaughter forms the backdrop of KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, Yiyun Li’s bleak but fascinating new novel. Some of the atrocities depicted here had worldwide ramifications, others affect only a group of neighbors who live together in a Beijing quadrangle, but all of these events are the more devastating for having been presented in a quiet, meditative novel.

"KINDER THAN SOLITUDE is a grim novel, but it’s a mesmerizing experience for fans of elegant writing."

The book jumps back and forth in time between 1989, when the three protagonists were teenagers, and modern-day scenes in China and America, in which the main characters, still scarred from childhood experiences, are struggling to manage their troubled lives. One of the three friends is Ruyu, who was raised by religious grandaunts, “a pair of unmarried Catholic sisters,” after she was abandoned on their doorstep in a rural Chinese village. They send Ruyu to Beijing to live with a couple known as Aunt and Uncle when she is 15. The plan is for her to stay with Aunt and Uncle and their 22-year-old daughter, Shaoai, until Ruyu is ready for college.

Ruyu arrives at the Beijing train station a couple of months after Tiananmen. Shaoai is there to greet Ruyu and brings two 16-year-old neighbors to help her: Boyang, whose parents are university professors, and Moran, for whom “nothing made her happier than loving everyone unreservedly.” The three teens become classmates when the school year begins.

Shaoai is on an enforced break from her university. She was not a leader of the democratic protest at Tiananmen Square, but the day after the June massacre, she posted on the school bulletin board a statement in which she called the government “a breeding farm of fascists.” At the time of Ruyu’s arrival, Shaoai and her parents wait to find out if the university will expel her or merely suspend her studies.

A couple of months later, Shaoai is the victim of chemical poisoning. What complicates the tragedy further is that the chemicals Shaoai ingests are stolen from Boyang’s mother’s chemistry lab. Suspicions and recriminations ensue. No one is sure who is responsible for the poisoning. The tension in the novel lies not so much in finding out the circumstances of Shaoai’s poisoning and eventual death 21 years later --- the book opens with Boyang arranging for her cremation --- but in the effect they have on the three protagonists. The three neighbors grow up, suffer divorces, and move to various locations in the U.S. and China. Although they interact with one another infrequently after they become adults, Boyang, Ruyu and Moran are always a part of each other’s lives, forever connected by the events surrounding Shaoai’s illness.

Many celebrated contemporary novels tell rather than show. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a striking trend that runs counter to the “show, don’t tell” wisdom imparted in creative writing classes. KINDER THAN SOLITUDE has a lot of telling. Fortunately, Li tells beautifully. The plot is too thin for a 300-page novel, and the male characters aren’t as interesting as the women, but Li’s writing and her perceptive observations on contemporary life in China and the United States compensate for the novel’s shortcomings. Gorgeous prose graces every page. Of adult Boyang’s decision not to introduce his much younger girlfriend to his parents: “He has not deemed it worthwhile to introduce the two --- one was too transient in his life, and the other, too permanent.” The confectioner’s shop that the adult Ruyu works in sells “flimsy china teacups arranged around a teapot like well-behaved orphans perpetually begging to be filled with love.”

KINDER THAN SOLITUDE is a grim novel, but it’s a mesmerizing experience for fans of elegant writing.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on February 28, 2014

Kinder Than Solitude
by Yiyun Li

  • Publication Date: February 25, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400068142
  • ISBN-13: 9781400068142