Publication date: February 25, 2014
A trio of friends haunted by a mysterious accident are the key characters in Yiyun Li’s new novel, Kinder Than Solitude. They all live within the same housing compound in Beijing, where life moves along without much disturbance, until an older girl living in one of their houses is overcome by a mysterious illness that later turns out to be chemical poisoning. She is not killed outright but her system is damaged irreparably, leaving her to die slowly over the next several decades with the mental acuity of a child and limited physical abilities. This mystery is the premise of the novel as Li writes of the characters from past to present. For Boyang and Moran their possible complicity in the poisoning colors the way they deal with their lives as adults. For Ruyu, a newcomer, there is no such confusion. A young orphan, raised by two older women who are fervent practitioners of their own version of Catholicism, she is preternaturally composed but whether this is her nature or her upbringing is unclear.
What is clear is that although there is a mystery at the heart of Kinder Than Solitude it is secondary to the focus Li places on her characters. This is a character study not a thriller and yet Li tells much but reveals little. Her descriptive abilities are without question, powerful, but with the exception of the softhearted Moran who
…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.
the other characters are always composed and dispassionate. Ruyu, is almost incomprehensible in her detachment towards her fellow humans. Instead, every human interaction is a chess move.
Shortly after her arrival in Beijing, as Moran is asking her questions about herself, her only thought is
She had never doubted her rights to question others, but to allow another person to ask her a question was to grant that person a status that he or she did not deserve: Ruyu knew that she answered to no one but her grandaunts and, beyond them, God himself.
It is interesting how she will be able to reconcile this mindset with future events. To use inelegant phrasing, Ruyu is a nasty piece of work.
Kinder Than Solitude is written at a masterful level of prose but I simply didn’t like it. I was reminded of a book I read in 2012 by another Chinese author, called The Bathing Women. Both are set in contemporary China and for me, both exhibit a degree of emotional sterility that keeps me outside the world being created. I don’t know if this is a cultural issue, indicative of a political regime that has banned so many of the ways humans express themselves or if it is my own inability to understand such a world. Either way, I found Li’s words to be elegant and precise but portraying an emotional Tundra that left me numb with the cold.