When a novel is shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the author is someone whose previous work has been shortlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemmingway award, I expect to experience something pretty special. I’m glad that I didn’t know at the time I read Yiyun Li’s novel Kinder than Solitude, that the 2015 Folio judges were “looking for excellence” and they felt their shortlisted titles had “boldness and experiment.” Had I known that, my expectations would have been even higher and my disappointment consequently greater.
This is the story of four young people in Beijing. Moran and Boyang are close friends whose friendship is tested when Ruyu enters their life. Sent by her adopted aunts to live in the city, she’s constructed a barrier of icy-heartedness around herself that she steadfastly maintains despite Moran and Boyang’s best efforts to break through. A fourth member of their little group is Shaoi, a college student a student who, it’s hinted, may have been involved in the recent Tiananmen Square protests. In a macabre poisoning she becomes severely brain damaged.
By the time the book opens, twenty one years have elapsed and Shaoai has just died. Ruyu has moved to the USA. Twice married and divorced she has constructed a barrier around her life through which it seems no person or event can penetrate. Moran also emigrated and divorced, has plenty of creature comforts but has a largely sterile and solitary life. On the surface, Boyang is the only one of the trio that is enjoying life. He has remained in Beijing, a handsome intelligent man who drives a flash BMW and has a string of successful businesses, this ‘diamond bachelor’ finds happiness eludes him. He’s neither young enough to form genuine relationships with the girls he meets nor old enough to be a genuine sugar daddy.
It’s a simple premise for a novel in which a dual time frame is employed to show how the lives of members of this quartet are irrevocably changed by an event in their past. The publishers suggest this is a hybrid novel; a thriller in which the identity of the novel is gradually revealed and also a psychological examination of the way in which we are all trapped by the past.
I’m not convinced it lives up to either of those descriptions. It’s not really a mystery story because there are enough signals to make it obvious to any averagely intelligent reader which character was responsible for the poisoning. Observations on human nature abound certainly but instead of illuminating the action they too often border on the portentous or banal.
As an example, the narrator declares at one point:
Nothing destroys a liveable life more completely than unfounded hope.
And at another:
But how does one tell where one’s true self stops and makes way for all the borrowed selves?
Perhaps other readers have more tolerance that I did for such pseudo aphorisms.
It was brave of Li to make her central figures uninspiring and unsympathetic for much of the novel. Their current lives are bleak and sterile, full of suppressed and unspoken emotions. It’s not until at least halfway through the novel that we get beyond the confusing faux philosophy and begin to dig beneath the surface of the characters of the three survivors. It’s only then that the novel comes together but for me it was too little.
Kinder than Solitude is published in the UK by Fourth Estate.
My copy was provided by NetGalley