Yiyun Li begins her second novel, Kinder Than Solitude, in a place of endings: a crematorium. The time is the present, more or less, and a Beijing resident named Boyang waits for the ashes of his childhood friend Shaoai, dead at 43 after having been poisoned (accidentally or otherwise) 21 years before.
“Who wanted her to die?” Boyang’s mother asks when he visits after dropping off the woman’s cremains with her family. “Who wanted to kill her back then?” These questions resonate throughout this novel, which moves fluidly between past and present, among Beijing, Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay area, in tracing the intersecting lives of four people — Boyang, Shaoai and two other women, Ruyu and Moran — as they wrestle with both their complicity and their heritage.
This is not uncommon territory for Li: In her novel The Vagrants, as well as her story collections A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, she writes with acuity and nuance about ordinary lives set against broader cultural and social divides. Born in China in 1972, she came to the United States in 1996 and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; she teaches at UC Davis and won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.
Still, if Kinder Than Solitude involves a similar sort of mobility, what makes it so vivid is its humanity, the idea that nationality and history are less important than the vagaries of the heart. Li makes this clear from the second chapter, which takes us back to August 1989 (two months after Tiananmen Square) to introduce Ruyu, sent by her grandaunts to Beijing where she will attend school.
Ruyu is a strange girl, lacking the most basic social graces, although she meets her match in Shaoai, with whose family she boards. From the outset, we can see problems in the offing.
“On the sidewalk,” Li writes, describing the aftermath of an encounter with a lecher on a city bus, “Shaoai asked Ruyu if she was too dumb to protect herself… For a split second, Shaoai regretted her eruption — after all, Ruyu was a young girl, a provincial, an orphan raised by eccentric old ladies… (B)ut the younger girl did not make a gesture either to mollify Shaoai or to defend herself. In Ruyu’s silence, Shaoai sensed a contemptuous extrication.”
A sense of disconnection affects her characters in different ways. We see it most in their adult lives — Boyang, divorced, with a much younger girlfriend, living in empty comfort in post-reform Beijing; Ruyu and Moran, each in America, existing in states of enforced isolation that, if lacking “the poignancy of great happiness and acute pain,” offer “the blessing of solitude”.
For all three, the events of late 1989, when Shaoai was poisoned, linger as a backdrop, a shared experience they can neither process nor put away. “Those seeking sanctuary in misremembering,” Moran reflects, “did not separate what had happened from what could have happened.”
Shaoai is poisoned by chemicals stolen from the lab of Boyang’s mother, who is a chemist at a university. This act of violence grows out of the antipathy between her and Ruyu that comes to a head on the night of an official rally in Tiananmen Square.
That this poisoning is both dramatic and inherently nondramatic is part of the point; Kinder Than Solitude is not a mystery, after all. Rather, it is an inquiry into how the past scars us, shaping present and future, and some deeds, once committed, can never be undone.
And yet, Li leaves politics largely out of the mix, despite Shaoai’s participation in the anti-government protests several months before. It is not her radicalism, in other words, that provokes her fate, but a clash of personalities that could happen anywhere, to anyone. Such commonness — or better yet, commonality — reminds us again that we are witnessing a human drama, in which passion, as opposed to ideology, is the precipitating force.
For Boyang, Moran and Ruyu, that passion is close to fatal also: if not to their bodies then to their souls. All the same, they must find a way to move on. “She was not the only one trapped by life,” Li writes of Moran, who may be as close as the book has to a moral center. “She was afraid of meeting another person like her, but more than that she was afraid of never meeting another person like her, who, however briefly, would look into her eyes so that she knew she was not alone in her loneliness.”
Kinder Than Solitude is not tragic, despite the tragedy at its center; it is instead a novel of gradations, in which easy expectations of condemnation or forgiveness fall to pieces before the necessity of coming to terms. That this is true for every one of us is what gives the book its resonance, with its attention to what happens after innocence burns off. We are all children once, and we all participate in things, see things, that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. “One life had ended,” Li writes, “and none of them was innocent. That must be something. No?”