Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl delivers stark, hushed stories that shift between China and America, depicting characters on the cusp: in "Prison" Yilan and Luo's unborn children face a future with either their westernized biological parents or a young, illiterate Chinese woman who is serving as their surrogate mother; in "Number Three, Garden Road" a woman musters the courage to pursue a relationship with a man old enough to be her father; in "Souvenir" a young woman purchases an item that alters an old man's memory of his deceased wife.
Li's characters are caught in the shifting political landscape of China as much as they are in the changing worlds of their own private lives. Frequently, these two separate worlds become inseparable. In "The Proprietress" a reporter questions a young woman who petitioned to have a baby with her incarcerated husband before his execution. The reporter tells Susu her requests for her husband on death row "sparked a national discussion about the legal as well as the moral and social significance of [her] case," and goes on to prod her, "Some picture you as a challenger to the present judicial system; some think of you as a victim of the old patriarchal society in which a wife's foremost responsibility is to ensure the continuity of the husband's blood; and some - pardon me - think you were using the petition to draw undue attention to your husband's case." Though the reporter's words are presented in the talk-show fashion of rehearsed, edited speeches, they also assert Li's ability to streamline the national discussion into momentary - even brief - experiences. A Chinese woman living in America pays a poor woman living in China to carry her child; Chinese blogs cheer for a teenage girl's internet campaign to avenge her philandering father; an old photograph from Ailin's childhood is Photoshopped with a pseudo sepia tone and hung on the wall of a Chinese restaurant in Lisbon. None of Li's stories fail to flutter into a larger world of modern China.
Li favors elderly narrators with a penchant for innocence and children who convey shrewdness beyond their stature. The elderly women of "House Fire" giggle like teenagers while playing matchmaker, but the young women of college age in "Sweeping Past" and "Prison" serve as proprietresses and mothers. Chronological time collapses; vivid memories take precedence over the present and grandmothers appear in their youth and old age, skipping between the present day and China under Mao in a few lines.
While hasty readers will appreciate Li's stories, the narratives will also stand up to the scrutiny of diligent analysis. The careful construction of each narrative is worth admiration, but occasionally it also hinders the stories, constricting them into a tight, focused moment. They finish too soon, leaving readers with little more than a lingering glimpse of the characters and their dilemmas.
Despite Li's careful rendering of China, it does not require a strong interest in Chinese culture to savor Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (despite the liberal sprinkling of Chinese aphorisms throughout the stories). This is where the collection exceeds the most; though each narrative corresponds to social concerns that are pertinent to China, the characters and their dilemmas could take place in Oklahoma, Geneva, Siberia, Johannesburg, or some other foreign locale. Li's Spartan prose style, with limited description and dialogue, strengthens both the Chinese culture and the universal concerns of each story. Readers who want to relate to the characters they meet, more so than the locales, will be dazzled by Li's writing. I, for one, will remember the people in these stories for many years to come.
This review is from the September 22, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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