Grief, survival, aftermath: these are the themes of Yiyun Li’s new book, a collection of 11 stories written over the past 14 years – a period marked by bereavement, her acknowledgments tells us, including the suicide of her 16-year-old son (after which Li wrote the poleaxing novel Where Reasons End, a writer’s dialogue with her dead child).
Many of the pieces centre on the painful unspooling of memories as life continues. In the title story, first published in the New Yorker in January, an American novelist named Rosalie waits in Amsterdam for a train to Brussels, watching a group of young travellers on the platform “with tall, overfilled backpacks propped beside them like self-important sidekicks”. We wonder if she’s not a little self-important herself, but we soon understand more of the churn of feeling behind her tone: her daughter killed herself on a railway line at the age of 15.
Against the backdrop of threat, Li’s characters meditate coolly on meaning and mortality
As Rosalie boards her train, she eyes a heavily pregnant woman in the same carriage while recalling her mother’s response to the death – she said it was “karma” – as well as contemplating her destination, the war graves of Ypres, in an imaginary back and forth with her late daughter (akin to Where Reasons End). Layered, quiet, controlled, the story gives an uncomfortable sense by the end that its energy lies somewhere off page – when Rosalie finds solace in the thought that she never asked her daughter to repay her love, it’s hard not to recall Li’s 2017 memoir, in which she said her own mother told her she “deserved the ugliest death because I did not love her enough”.
In Wednesday’s Child, death is everywhere, sudden and awful. One character has been widowed by a fatal mugging; another story mentions a deadly street stabbing. Against the backdrop of threat, Li’s characters meditate coolly on meaning and mortality. One narrator finds herself held up in a roadblock after someone is prevented from jumping from a ledge. “People would tell him that he had many reasons to live. They would not accept it if he said that he had many reasons for wanting to die,” she thinks, struggling with a six-year-old son who is preciously articulate at home but mute in public (she wonders if she’s “failed [him] by simply giving him a life”).
Li’s storytelling here is gradual, accretive, often refusing to settle into any kind of expected focus; A Sheltered Woman, about a nanny working among Chinese Americans, takes in the histories not only of its protagonist and her depressed client, but that of the man who repairs her dishwasher. Some of the stories are thoroughly nested, ending up at several removes from the central characters recalling them. Often the mood is a result of the inescapable fact that the characters are shut out from the events that have shaped their lives: in one story, When We Were Happy We Had Other Names, the parents of a teenage suicide ask: “What went wrong, then? We’ll never know. Not knowing is hard. It’s so hard.”
The most conventionally satisfying piece, A Flawless Silence, is notably one in which the protagonist is able to take some kind of action. A mother of twins near San Francisco, she’s harassed over email by an elderly man who decades earlier in China had demanded sex from her, dangling the possibility of marrying his son when she was 19. While most of the story dramatises her dismay over the 2016 presidential election – not shared by her Trump-voting husband – the action comes to rest on her decision to tell the man once and for all to stop communicating. In passing, we get commentary on the workings of the Chinese-American marriage market, not to mention a pithy diagnosis of misogyny (“The moment he’d laid his eyes on her she owed him something”), but the reason we get a genuine payoff too, you feel, is that this time the tale turns on an antagonist, not someone the central character loves.
Wednesday’s Child by Yiyun Li is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply