A stellar assortment of stories about struggles to escape and connect in contemporary China.
Since her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), Li has become a more ambitious and nuanced storyteller: Her first novel, The Vagrants (2009), was a striking cross-section of life in a small Chinese town affected by a young woman’s execution; this book marks no thematic shifts, but the writing is slyer and deeper. The opening story, “Kindness,” is a virtuosic novella in which a middle-aged woman recalls relationships with two crucial women in her life: a retired schoolteacher who provided a haven during the narrator’s difficult childhood and the army lieutenant whose treatment of her veered from tenderness to humiliation. The narrator, writing as a 40-something, is shaken and isolated by her experiences, but also intriguingly self-aware, and Li skillfully balances this insecurity and self-regard. The remaining eight stories are shorter but no less powerful. In “Prison,” a woman moves back to China from America to monitor the surrogate carrying her baby, opening up questions about servitude, class and parenthood. In “House Fire,” a group of women gain celebrity for a public crusade against infidelity, but their confidence in their cause is unsettled when a timid man arrives for help. In “The Proprietress,” a woman running a store near a prison arrogantly basks in the power she wields over her patrons. In the closing title story, a young man and women are pressured into an untenable but inevitable relationship. The prevailing emotion among Li’s characters is entrapment: They are routinely feeling locked into relationships or predicaments, sometimes by the state, but usually by family or their own lack of will.
Further proof that Li deserves to be considered among the best living fiction writers.