Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel. Yiyun Li. Random House. February 2-14. 336 pp. ISBN#: 9781400068142.
The choice to be a conformist, protestor or apathetic young man or woman during the years surrounding the horrific Tiananmen Square uprising was pivotal for one’s self and its impact on family and communities throughout China. So Yiyun Li chooses Boyang, Ryu, Shaoai, Moran, Celia and Sizhuo as representative youth who over a span of twenty years reveal how insidious the impact of that dramatic time was on the human personality. It’s a remarkable transformation that is unique for its successes and failures, producing outlooks that are idiosyncratic to readers of the Western world.
The novel focuses on an act of poisoning one of our central characters. The question is implied by many as to who was responsible for that deed that mentally and emotionally crippled Shaoai, a formerly phenomenally intelligent young woman who has now, twenty years after a crippled life, died. A telegram is sent to mark the death but the responses or lack thereof are also unexpected.
Orphaned as a child, Ryu was raised by two “great-aunts” who taught her to disdain excesses of emotion, a Spartan-type training that never fails to upend the reactions of her friends and acquaintances. Moran is a friendly, outgoing young woman who is practically undone by the apathy of Ryu, the sarcasm and bitterness of Shaoai, and the denial of Boyang’s connection to her. Boyang wants the best of both worlds, a world of dalliance with a free spirit woman but also a woman who will allow him to experience the heights and depths of meaning, a search that has thus far proved futile.
While all these characters appear to cause great emotional or psychological harm, accruing in small tidbits over this twenty-year span, to each other, an iota of vulnerability in each one, as brilliantly crafted by the author, pervades the thoughts and feelings of each person. The reader is constantly waiting for a breakdown in the “void” each fights to maintain and the crack does appear in fleeting moments. The cost is huge to maintain this isolated stance but the “breaks” are definitely worthy of the title of this character study.
The actions, dialogue, controversies, and partial responses on every page parallel the ways of coping with constant change in China’s government during this tumultuous time. A few months after the Tiananmen Square, a planned demonstration celebrating an anniversary of Communism highlights the coping skills by quite simple responses says more about the surface veneer of Chinese life than it does significant meaning behind the propaganda. Again, the response of all seems to bear an “inevitable” burden one must negate in order to survive.
Yiyun Li has crafted an important novel with superb characterization that leaves more questions than answers about a significant historical period and how one survives a repressive government, while still appreciating all the positive realities that life has to offer. Excellent and highly recommended!