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, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the Whiting Writers’ Award and the Guardian First Book Award. 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.
The basic storyline concerns a group of teenage friends, Boyang, Moran and Ruyu who are bound together by friendship and 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 his success (ie a BMW) but is divorced and adrift.
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.
With Ruyu we approach closer to the heart of the mystery and the secret that links the three friends. She is, I think, a deeply unlikeable character, a borderline sociopath who has no feelings. Her response to virtually all situations is cold indifference and non-involvement. “I don’t have a family. I don’t travel. I don’t eat at restaurants. I don’t go to movies. There were two marriages and both failed. And there is no one now, in this or another country…” Ruyu is defined by negatives.
So what kind of a book is Kinder than Solitude? Its central secret, a poisoning, would suggest it is a thriller and Li cleverly manipulates her plot to ensure that whilst 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 twenty years to die, twenty years in which the lives of the others are also in various ways poisoned. There is plenty of material here to create something both intriguing and possibly profound. So why, then doesn’t it work?
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 fitted 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. I could quote a hundred but this is not untypical: “One’s mind, fooled by pride, does not recognise the wisdom that comes from sorrow. Prematurely one rushes for the remedy of dignity, not knowing that dignity, rather than rejection, turns one’s heart into a timid organ, pleading for protection.” These authorial nuggets of wisdom, if that is indeed what they are, are frequently tortuous and invariably slow up any pace the narrative might gained.
Is it all bad news? Well, for this reader at any rate the second half of the book was a deal better than the first but given her standing and her reputation I suspect that there are much better books to come from Li than this one.
A longer version of this review appeared in The Star (Malaysia) www.star2.com/culture/books.