Better books to come
KINDER Than Solitude brings with it a weight of expectation both on the back of the author’s previous work and through the “puffs” it bears proudly on its cover. “This is an exceptional novel and Yiyun Li has grown into one of our major novelists” proclaims Salmon Rushdie, no less, and a flick to the back fly leaf reveals a string of prizes and awards. Such praise, and the reputation that accompanies it, sets the bar high for the reader.
“This is an important book by an important writer” is the clear message of the packaging. Well, I’m afraid on this showing that I beg to differ. Whatever her previous successes, and they are clearly many, I struggled with this latest offering. Kinder Than Solitude is hard work that ultimately yields little by way of reward.
The basic storyline concerns a group of teenage friends, Boyang, Moran and Ruyu, who are bound together by the secret that lies at the heart of the book.
Now adults, Boyang still lives in China but the other two have moved to the United States.
They make a pretty sad trio.
Boyang is a successful businessman with all the trappings of success (i.e. a BMW) but is divorced and adrift.
In the few scenes of the book in which he really comes to life, we see him taking out a much younger woman, Sizhuo, but both of them seem clueless about why they are spending time in each other’s company. There is no romance, no attempt at seduction and insufficient connection for them to be true friends.
Moran has a failed marriage behind her but her relationship with her dying ex-husband is actually one of the few threads in the book to exhibit real human warmth. She lives a simple, undemanding life and is the soft heart of the trio, disappointed as a teenager in Boyang’s obvious preference for Ruyu but more reflective and emotionally articulate than either of her friends in adulthood. Nonetheless, she has opted to live alone.
With Ruyu, we get closer to the heart of the mystery and the secret that links the three friends. She is, I think, a deeply unlikable character, a borderline sociopath who has no feelings. Her response to virtually all situations is cold indifference and non-involvement.
It is Ruyu who steals a chemical from a lab that is implicated in the slow death of her roommate Shaoai; Ruyu who has the most obvious motivation for killing her as the recipient of withering scorn and unwanted sexual advances; Ruyu whose cold refusal to be pinned down by official questioning leaves her free but in self-imposed exile in the United States. Ruyu is defined by negatives.
So what kind of a book is Kinder Than Solitude?
Its central secret, the poisoning, would suggest it is some sort of a thriller and Li cleverly manipulates her plot to ensure that while we know something has happened, we do not know, until very late on, exactly what. So there is some suspense.
It is also part fable: Shaoai is brain-damaged by the poison and takes 20 years to die, during which time, the lives of the others are also in various ways poisoned.
There is plenty of material here to create something intriguing and possibly profound. So why, then, doesn’t it work?
There are, for me, a number of reasons. For the first half of the book, the connections between the characters are unclear and much of the plotting is confusing. I found myself constantly turning back to work out who was who and how they fit in.
And then there is the style. Li has been consistently praised for her cool, limpid prose but in this book the authorial interventions are exhausting. These authorial nuggets of wisdom, if that is indeed what they are, are frequently tortuous and invariably slow down any pace the narrative might have gained.
Is it all bad news? Well, for this reader at any rate, the second half of the book is a deal better than the first, but given Li’s standing and her reputation, I suspect that there are much better books to come from her than this one.