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Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li, Fourth Estate, RRP £14.99/ Random House, $26, 320 pages
To describe the characters in Yiyun Li’s bold and unsettling new novel as “rootless” would be simplistic. It is true they are all searching for a sense of acceptance amid changing times, both in the United States and in China, in the late 1980s and the present; but they are also in pursuit of something even more elusive than belonging: the near-impossible feat of extending and accepting love. Their relationships – both with each other and with themselves – are often troubled by an inability to commit to a single, fixed moral stand. Family obligations clash with the aspirations of the individual; the American dream competes with the hard-edged glitter of contemporary China.
As elsewhere in Li’s award-winning fiction, the outcome of these conflicts is never truly resolved. The messiness of the human condition is presented in all its complexity, with moral judgment often suspended in favour of a more nuanced probing of the way people respond to turbulent times.
A tragic incident lies at the heart of Kinder Than Solitude: the mysterious poisoning of a young woman, Shaoai, whose death after 20 years in a coma opens the novel. We know that the three principal characters, Boyang, Ruyu and Moran, were intimately connected with Shaoai, that they were somehow involved in the poisoning, and that the incident has haunted their lives.
Plot conventions require a pay-off at the end of the novel: which of the three friends was responsible for Shaoai’s death, what were their motives? Yet Li reconstructs the elements of the page-turner so that the answer to these questions feels secondary to the exploration of the characters’ struggles as they attempt to rebuild their respective lives in the decades following the incident. Determining fault for past tragedies is less important than reshaping the future, the novel seems to suggest. Whether the three friends find happiness is more important than finding out who poisoned Shaoai.
Ruyu lives in the US, with two marriages of varying degrees of unhappiness already under her belt. Her nondescript existence in comfortable suburbia represents a wider inability to respond to people or events with any degree of demonstrativeness, a trait that she has carried over from her youth and that has always frustrated the people close to her.
Moran, too, has emigrated to the US, also with a divorce behind her, as well as a similar propensity for solitude. But while her pared-down, deliberately banal lifestyle may bear similarities with Ruyu’s, her existence is more reflective, more emotionally articulate; her continuing relationship with her dying ex-husband provides many of the novel’s most tender moments, and acts as a strange counterweight to her process of reconciliation with the past.
Boyang, the handsome high-achiever who shared Moran’s love for the history and architecture of Beijing during their youth, has remained in China, a recently divorced “Diamond Bachelor” with a string of successful businesses and a shiny new BMW to his name. Happiness eludes him too – his casual hook-ups with a 22-year-old fail to distract him from the pain and elation of his teenage memories, and end up representing, instead, the hard transactional nature of many relationships in materially driven Beijing.
Too young to be a genuine Sugar Daddy, too old to form a relationship with a young shop assistant he meets by chance, Boyang falls into the cracks between the neatly defined social categories in modern-day China. And it is precisely the intriguing nature of these nebulous in-between spaces that drives the novel, as it does in the rest of Li’s work: is Ruyu simply a cold-hearted, borderline sociopath or someone irrevocably traumatised by being abandoned as a tiny child? Is Shaoai a calculating bully or a victim herself – a symbol of the crushed hopes of her generation? Is immigration an act of seeking something good, or fleeing something bad, and is it driven by love, money or loyalty? That we oscillate between sympathy and frustration – and sometimes anger – is a sign of a finely wrought novel that never shrinks from laying bare the messiness and fragility of the human condition.
Li possesses a supreme ability to depict subtle cultural interactions, and many of the novel’s best moments depict the fascinating collision between America and China, between the restless immigrant and those more settled. In one brilliant encounter at a smart suburban party, Ruyu finds herself revealing the news of Shaoai’s death to the husband of her employer who wants, desperately, to commiserate, to mourn with Ruyu. But Ruyu cannot open up to this relative stranger, and so they become locked in an impasse: sentimental America versus unyielding China, with no clear winner. Moran, who has spent most of her life as an immigrant trying to disconnect herself from her past in China, finds that she is incapable of fleeing it. “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in,” she says. “If one starts without a position, it’s meaningless to think about the next point in time or geography.”
Tash Aw is author of ‘Five Star Billionaire’ (Fourth Estate)