Book Review: 'Kinder Than Solitude'

Ellah Allfrey reviews Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Author Yiyun Li's latest novel begins with a death. Three friends are linked to the victim and the clues begin to pile up. But this isn't your typical whodunit. There's no famous detective helpfully vacationing nearby, no friendly sidekick or devious villain. Even the crime of poisoning occurred in the distant past.

Instead, the novel explores what happens when bad memories are buried for a lifetime. Here's Ellah Allfrey with a review of Yiyun Li's "Kinder Than Solitude."

ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: From the first page of this book, I was filled with desolation. At times, I was overwhelmed by it. The characters all held themselves apart from intimacy. Even the most relentless optimist couldn't hope for their redemption. That isn't to say the book is not good. Li probes her character's motives. She interrogates their morals and responsibilities. It's incredibly compelling.

The book begins in China where we meet Boyang. He's a successful Beijing businessman whose marriage is falling apart and he's overseeing the creation of an old friend named Shaoai. We know she was severely brain-damaged and disabled and we find out later that it was caused by a poisoning two decades before. Boyang clearly feels some responsibility.

Then, we jump to America. Living separate, but equally impaired lives, Ruyu and Moran, two women also from Beijing. The question of which one of them poisoned Shaoai as a teenager and why is at the center of the story. But it's not really a mystery. Li is more concerned with the vital questions of existence. Right before the accident, one of the girls thinks to herself that she had arrived at the threshold of her real life for which she had been rehearsing as a diligent child.

For the rest of the book, Li asks what happens if we never get past this point of rehearsal. What life has been lived? In America, where we follow the two women as adults, we get to know something of their personalities. I was fascinated by Ruyu. She's an orphan, abandoned at birth and looked after by a set of great aunts. When it was time for her to attend high school, they sent her to the city and there she meets Boyang and Moran.

They're friendly and welcome her into their little gang. But Ruyu is a paid guest with the family of their neighbor Shaoai, an older girl who treats her with resentment and sometimes cruelty. As the narrative goes back and forth between the fateful childhood summer and their adult lives, you wonder which one of the friends would have hurt Shaoai.

But as the truth of what happened is untangled, you start to suspect, however uncomfortable it may be, that Shaoai herself bears the greatest responsibility. In the end, the story is lifted by Boyang. He insists that the dead woman's life and suffering deserve acknowledgment. To be seen, Li writes, and to be seen as someone with a past and a future, is that not our most sincere design for love?

SIEGEL: The book is "Kinder Than Solitude" by Yiyan Li. It was reviewed by editor and critic Ellah Allfrey.

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