wed 30/11/2022

Yiyun Li: The Book of Goose - fame, reality and two teenage French girls | reviews, news & interviews

Yiyun Li: The Book of Goose - fame, reality and two teenage French girls

Yiyun Li: The Book of Goose - fame, reality and two teenage French girls

Yiyun Li's compelling fifth novel marks a new departure

Imagination is a kite flown by reality: Yiyun Li

The Book of Goose, Yiyun Li’s fifth novel, is the gripping story of two teenage French girls and their intense, uneven friendship.

On the surface, at least, it’s more accessible and light-hearted than some of her fiction, such as The Vagrants, an account of life in totalitarian China, where Li was brought up (she moved to the USA in 1996 and is now a professor of creative writing at Princeton) or Where Reasons End, (2019) a hauntingly beautiful dialogue between a mother and her dead 16-year-old son.

This, tragically, mirrors Yi’s life: that book is dedicated to her own teenage son, Vincent, who killed himself. And she herself suffered from suicidal depression, which she documented in a memoir in 2017, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life.

So this new novel, also dedicated to Vincent, comes as quite a departure, both in tone and setting, though some of its themes – time, imagination, the meaning of revenge, the omnipresence of death – are familiar, and a sadness, not unrelated to Where Reasons End, with its meditations on motherhood and driven, untameable children, permeates.

Agnès, The Book of Goose’s narrator, now married, childless and living in Pennsylvania, looks back at her teenage years in the village of St Rémy in France. She is an enticing heroine, though it’s her chillingly heartless friend, Fabienne, who is the driving force. “I was the whetstone to Fabienne’s blade.”

It’s 1953; the girls are 13. Fabienne has not been to school for the past two years; she’s too busy looking after the family’s cows. Her father is a drunk, her mother is dead, her sister died, scandalously, in childbirth, aged 17. Agnès’s worn-out parents are mainly concerned with her brother, Jean, who is dying – yes, a lot of death – after returning from a German labour camp six years earlier. Both families are poor. “Neither of us had seen a real book in our lives.”

In spite of this, Fabienne decides that they should write one. It’s to be a new game: she’ll make up the stories, Agnès will write them down – she has nice handwriting and is better looking - and they’ll enlist the help of the recently widowed postmaster, M Devaux, who writes poems and reads them to his pigeons. He agrees, first grudgingly, then controllingly. He respects Fabienne’s formidable intellect but, fatally, he underestimates her. “M Devaux was always eager to prove himself as superior to Fabienne. I could see his days were numbered.”

Nevertheless, things go well for a while and soon they have created eight macabre stories about “eight dead children and a number of dead animals”. Who is really the author, though? Devaux comes up with a title, Les Enfants Heureux, surely a nod to Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, and arranges a trip with Agnès to Paris, where they meet publishers.

Not surprisingly, these professionals are doubtful about whether a peasant girl could really have written such sophisticated stories, but Agnès complies with their request to prove it by writing a few paragraphs for them there and then. “This was the first time I had written something in my own words. Though to call them my words would be wrong. They were Fabienne’s.” Her friend has got inside her head, has “made us into one person.” What does this say about authenticity?

The book is published to great fanfare and publicity. A photographer comes to St Rémy and takes pictures of Agnès among the pigs. Fabienne is apparently only too pleased not to have her name on the book even though the stories are mainly her creations.

Before long Agnès’s fame reaches an unattractively avid English benefactress, Mrs Townsend, the headmistress of a finishing school in Surrey. After reading Les Enfants Heureux, she takes it upon herself to further the girl’s prospects. She also, it turns out, wants to have a hand – she’s a would-be writer herself: surely nothing more grisly, thinks Agnès - in writing her protegée’s third book.

From pig-herd to debutante: it sounds like a fairy-tale. “You will not leave the school until we transform you,” she says ominously.  Encouraged by Fabienne, the reluctant Agnès is plunged into an alien world, wearing beautiful clothes bought for her by Mrs Townsend in London, where the raindrops, bare-limbed trees and streetlamps seem to have something to say to her but in a language she doesn't yet know. The other girls, wealthy and privileged, are like “marvellous seashells” and mainly treat the new pupil kindly, admiring her for having published a book. But only the middle-aged gardener brings some solace. That doesn't end well.

The finishing school is a fascinating interlude and I was sorry when Agnès could stand no more of it. She returns to St Rémy, the pigs and her old gumboots. Surely they won’t fit her any more after her leather shoes with shiny buckles and satin dancing shoes? “And yet the moment I slipped them on I was back to that peasant girl, Agnès.”

Agnès's so-called transformation in Paris and England, then, is as nothing comparied to her longing for Fabienne. "We have each other. That's all we need," she says. But Fabienne sees their friendship with brutal clarity. “We’re life-real now, not game-real,” she tells Agnès, in one of the book's least successful, rather overstated final scenes. "There's nothing we can do for each other now." The best time of their lives, it seems, is already over.

Agnès is an enticing heroine, though it’s her chillingly heartless friend, Fabienne, who is the driving force

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