Book review: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

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      Published by Random House, 240 pp, $28.95, hardcover

      In her latest collection of short stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li continues to operate on the emotional bandwidth of her magnificent debut novel, The Vagrants, and her award-winning book of short fiction A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

      Capturing the dissonance of a world where fate hijacks happiness, Li demonstrates her exceptional ability to calibrate discontent and heartbreak in these nine narratives, which describe restless souls clinging to precarious hopes and gestures of goodwill. Here, she examines the trials and internal turbulence of contemporary Chinese lives, while subtly portraying the effects of traditional culture, the Communist revolution, and modern socioeconomic developments. Returning to the short-story format that first garnered Li acclaim, the miniatures of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl reveal themselves as pitch-perfect melodies, as opposed to the symphony of her full-length work.

      The book’s greatest story, “Kindness”, opens the collection and recounts a middle-aged schoolteacher’s time in the military. Dazzling in its crystalline expression of the main character’s apathy and sentimentality, this piece reflects on the two women whose thoughtfulness made the deepest impression on the teacher’s life.

      In the title story, a professor masterminds the engagement of her son to a former student. “They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad,” Li writes, “but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

      Levity arrives, unexpectedly, in “House Fire”, where six retired women become local celebrities after they form an amateur detective agency that specializes in exposing infidelities.

      Fatalism and startling moments of gruesome violence are characteristic of Li’s other material, and are exemplified in “Sweeping Past”, where an old woman tells her granddaughter about the tragedy that severed her from her two best friends, and “Prison”, in which a married couple decide to have another child, by means of a surrogate, following the death of their teenage daughter.

      Li, who lives in Oakland, California, is a stylist of quiet majesty. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl articulates the bleakness of lives warped by chance, the misfortunes accepted as destiny, and the cherished memories that prevent us from drowning.

      Yiyun Li will appear at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival as part of the Literary Cabaret on October 22 at Performance Works, and alongside other young U.S. authors at American Splendour, on October 23 at the same venue.