The lives of three teenage Chinese friends, irreversibly altered by the horrible, lingering poisoning of an older girl, are the subject of the bleak yet penetrating novel from PEN/Hemingway award winner Li.
The catalyst for Beijing-born Li’s (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, 2010, etc.) unsparing novel, set partly in 1989, partly some two decades later, is 15-year-old Ruyu, a contained, empathy-free orphan raised by two religious women and sent to relatives in Beijing in preparation for college. The Beijing family has an older daughter, Shaoai, and lives in a community that includes Moran and Boyang, who are in the same school and grade as Ruyu and show her their city. Moran, optimistic and kindly, has always hoped for a future with Boyang, the clever son of academic parents. Shaoai, 22, is a rebel whose involvement in a recent democratic protest will shortly lead to punishment: expulsion from university, her future ruined. Shaoai is hostile to Ruyu and sexually molests her. After a visit to the university laboratory where Boyang’s parents work, Shaoai falls seriously ill from chemical poisoning and will suffer 21 more brain-damaged years. But who poisoned her? Opening with Shaoai’s death, Li tracks the three erstwhile friends, now scattered across the U.S. and China, each isolated in a different way. The whodunit is less mysterious than their interconnected fates.
Li’s chilly, philosophical storytelling offers layers of unsettling yet impressive insight into family legacies and cultural dynamics.