BookBrowse Reviews The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

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The Book of Goose

A Novel

by Yiyun Li

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li X
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 368 pages

    Aug 2023, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book



A subtly suspenseful and inventive novel of friendship, opportunism, fame, fantasy, success and survival.

Yiyun Li's The Book of Goose is a story of childhood friendship between narrator Agnès, a one-time prodigy from rural France credited with publishing a book at the age of 14, and Fabienne, who pushed Agnès along the path to fame. Towards the opening of the novel, Agnès, now living with her husband Earl in Pennsylvania — where she raises geese — receives word that Fabienne has died in childbirth. As she reflects on this news, Agnès unwinds the events that led to her literary stardom in a long flashback that comprises most of the rest of the novel.

Her story begins in the farming village of Saint Rémy during and following World War II. Growing up, all that really matters to Agnès is to remain close to Fabienne and to live out the games and fantasies her friend creates for them. But when Fabienne concocts the idea for the two of them to write a book with the help of the widowed postmaster, M. Devaux, and pass off Agnès as the sole author, her scheme winds up driving them apart.

Having published the book, a collection of stories titled Les Enfants Heureux that depicts children dying in horrible ways, Agnès becomes a quick success and something of a curiosity for people who wonder how a young girl from a provincial town turned the morbid details of her everyday life into words worthy of wonder. With this new existence comes an array of adults seeking to harness her potential to generate money and publicity, the most annoying and overbearing of which proves to be Mrs. Townsend, a woman who runs a girls' finishing school in England. Mrs. Townsend convinces Agnès's parents to allow her to provide their daughter with free education for a year, during which she will act as her legal guardian.

Agnès is reluctant to go, but Fabienne flips this situation into a new game for them to play: While at the school, Agnès writes to her friend and also to a made-up boyfriend of Fabienne's creation, Jacques, whom the girls pretend is Fabienne's brother. This fiction, which allows them to test the broadness and limitations of their feelings about each other, is one that Agnès warms to quickly, noting, "Jacques was better than any boy I had known: he had all the qualities of Fabienne, and he loved me more than Fabienne did."

Li has always been skilled at portraying the everyday in a way that's just off-kilter enough to provoke a suspense-fueling disturbance. Throughout the novel, even close to the end, we're left wondering where the story is going, exactly — in terms of plot, philosophical angle, the characters' relationship — though the story itself is deceptively straightforward. This is part of the fun. As readers, we get hooked on the girls' games just as they do, proceeding simply because we can't wait to see what happens next.

The Book of Goose draws on conventional elements — this is a tale of childhood friends whose closeness threatens patriarchal and heteronormative structures, of those two friends growing apart, of a character making a journey from a simple country setting to one of urban refinement, of that character becoming acquainted with the cynical realities of celebrity — but its brilliance lies in the small ways in which these elements go awry. Fabienne and Agnès themselves seek to disrupt the dull narratives their lives are pitched towards — marriage, children, death — although the grim truth that fame and adventures come with their own dull narratives soon sets in. Still, they try their best to live by their own rules. Li's novel has a lot going for it thematically, raising questions about fiction and perspective and reality, about exploitation and domination and class snobbery, all suspended distinctly in Agnès's satisfyingly rendered narration, which comes across clear, sharp and tinged with existential dread. All this makes the ride alongside the main characters as they attempt to bend reality to their will continually intriguing.

At one point, Agnès is interrogated by a British publisher, his assistant and Mrs. Townsend, who are eager to know about her plans for future books and to offer advice. Out of her element, and feeling that she will inevitably make a misstep, Agnès leans into the precarity of the moment and dramatically announces that she may never write another book, to stunning effect. "I could tell," she explains, "from all three adults' faces, that I said a perfectly wrong and horrible thing."

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2022, and has been updated for the September 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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