Book Review: Kinder Than Solitude

I just finished a novel by a Chinese-American writer Li Yiyun, titled “Kinder Than Solitude.”  I wasn’t impressed even though the writer has garnered numerous acclaims in the English literature academia, particularly in the United States. This novel is no way a work that tops Li’s previous achievements. In fact, quite the opposite. Frankly speaking, I’m wondering whether it’s because of Li’s international prestige that most of the critics have raved about this novel in the book review. And yet, because her work is so full of expectation, she has flopped it under pressure.

The only few book review that I agree with is the ones appear in the British newspapers–the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both newspapers didn’t say high praises of Li’s latest novel, contrary to what the American counterparts do. Maybe because Li is a graduate from the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her writing bear the distinction that most Iowa writers have. It’s like all desserts that come from the same bakery share some similarities.

In her latest novel, Kinder Than Solitude, I see Li try hard to make her words literary and appropriate to English usage. But just because of her “over the board” effort, the syntax in the novel is contrived and pretentious. One of an American reader told me that he found her writing read like translation from Chinese. No wonder I find it hard to understand the book in which long sentences abound. By the time I finished the full sentence, I had forgotten the information in the beginning of the sentence. My point is verified by the book reviewer in the Guardian. Here it writes:

“… there’s something problematic in the prose itself. Li’s past work has shown that she is capable of writing powerfully, but in much of this book she indulges a habit of moralising authorial commentary that clogs the flow of individual scenes, and casts an aura of ponderous solemnity over the action. It’s not that the comments aren’t illuminating; they sometimes are, but they are often so complicatedly expressed that by the time you’ve deciphered them, you’ve also disengaged from the moment they were supposed to illuminate. Here’s one that trapped me for an eternity in its looping coils: ‘But there was no point apologising: a man unable to extricate himself from the mercy of others has to find some balance in those who put their lives at his mercy.’ Others, for all their intricate articulation, struck me as plain banal: ‘She was not armored against that danger as she might have thought; no, she was not protected at all: only those who do not seek answers are safe from being touched.’ It’s an odd effect: Henry James meets Confucius.”

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On quite a few occasions and even in the New York Times interviews, Li reiterated she wasn’t writing purposely about Chinese people and events taken place in China–her country of birth. Her storyline comes first and then it just happens to be Chinese characters. She doesn’t want to be identified as a Chinese writer or a non-native-English speaker who writes about China in English. But that is exactly the point! Why would she have trouble dealing with the “ethnic categorization” that the American public gives her. Why would she rather to call herself “international writer”?

If a writer doesn’t recognize, or even despise in Li’s case, her root and her ethnicity, no matter how successful she is, her writings will lack integrity and soul. I think I’ve explained myself why Li’s short stories and novels don’t leave much impression on me. I can’t identify her characters are Chinese. In fact, the Chinese characters in her fiction are only people with Chinese names but without the commonality that Chinese people and culture should have. For example, in Li’s latest novel, there’s no Chinese pronunciation when the Chinese characters speak. That Beijing’s tap water becomes drinkable under the author’s pen is factually incorrect.

Perhaps the main reason is in the West, educated people fancy anything coming from Far East, believing the oriental culture is mystical and alluring. Li, a woman who spent more than half of her lifetime in the U.S., writes something about the China that she almost forgets or the Chinese culture that she even tries to exclude from, and somehow has succeeded in winning the heart of English readers. It really tells how much English readers are hungry for the rarity of literature about China. Sadly, from the standpoint of the writer, Li seems to have reservation towards her identity with China.


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