The hidden heart of Yiyun Li’s new novel

“You can cut a book,” says the narrator of Yiyun Li’s new novel, goose book. “There are different ways of measuring depth, but not many readers measure the depth of a book with a knife, which cuts from the first page all the way to the last. Why not, I wonder.” This sounds like a challenge – to take the knife this is The book, the Chinese-born author’s seventh work of fiction, breaks it down to reveal what its gist is.

There are many ways to avoid this challenge—a distraction from Lee’s real project—because of the number of elements she throws into this novel: its primary setting in a bleak rural setting in post-war France. immersion in the English boarding school novel; take on the outdated metaphor of “female friendship”; The possibility of a queer relationship has not been clarified; Comment on the whims of fame. Then there’s the very easy comparison to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet – a comparison that is really helpful only to point the reader toward the themes of desire and self-determination they share.

But take the knife that he offers me, and cut out all these exterior decorations, and you will find something a little more mysterious. Although it is a realistic historical novel about the lives of women and girls in mid-century France, as its fictional title indicates, goose book Secretly dwells in the world of fairy tales. Early on, the narrator, Agnes, stated, “Some people are born with a special kind of crystal instead of a heart…that crystal instead of a heart—makes things happen. To others.” This magical picture is Agnes’ way of describing the influence of her friend Fabian on her, an insatiable drive to shake things up that make up the dynamic between the two girls. The dominant Fabian issues orders that Agnes, seemingly enslaved to the superior imagination of her friend, is compelled to act upon her.

Lee portrays Fabien as almost superhero in wonderful and horrible ways. As a character, it gave me a chance to explore the strange power of the myths we form about the people who make up us. However, what really lies at the heart of Agnes, and at the heart of the novel, appears only dimly and is difficult to highlight. To do so is the real work – and the fun – of reading this subtle and elusive book.

Agnes and Fabian are 13 years old when we meet, but they have already seen a lot: the slow death of Agnes’ brother, after returning from a German labor camp, and the rapid and violent death of Fabian’s sister in childbirth. And they don’t have much to look forward to after youth. Like the older Agnes sisters, the two girls are expected to marry, have children, and survive in their stifling little village world, Saint-Remy. Contrary to most historical accounts, the physical world of this village is largely abstract. We do not know in which region of France it is located or what kind of crops grow in the surrounding fields. All we know is that it’s not enough for Fabien, and because Fabian believes in it, Agnes does too. Fabian lives only for experience and provocation, as Agnes says: “To peel the bark of a young tree to see how fast it will die. To pet a dog and then give it a kick, only to cherish the confused terror in the eyes of the poor beast.” The confines of the village and the life that awaits them are too restrictive for the brutal urgency of Fabian’s need for action.

It was Fabian who decided one day that the two of them would play a “game” that would go far beyond Saint-Remy: they would write and publish a book. The stories are dictated by Fabian – a collection of brutal stories about dead children – and written by Agnes; As Agnes emphatically remarked, “I was not bad at calligraphy. She was not bad at speaking like a dead woman.” This decision determines the plot of the dramatic novel: at Fabien’s request, the book was soon published under the name Anias, because she considers that Agnes, more traditionally attractive and well-behaved than her, would be better off in the eyes of the public. She’s right, and publisher Agnes is aggressively marketed as a child prodigy in Paris and London. The success of the book eventually drove Agnes away from the village, while Fabian stayed behind. Now a famous writer, Agnes is sent to a finishing school in Surrey, where the headmistress of the school hopes to claim that the girl’s success is her own.

However, the plot is, in some ways, a distraction. The book is eventful on the surface, and the exciting things that happen to Agnes mean nothing to her. She yearns all the time to return to Saint Remy and Fabian, the only person in the real world with whom she feels real. This attraction is the crux of the book: the influence of a friend whose presence feels so important that her arrival was a cosmic event that determined the color of the sky or the gravitational pull of gravity – there was none until she came. Lee’s interest in the nonsensical logic of childhood friendships evokes the strangeness of this kind of relationship, which bears no resemblance to familial bonding, rather than romantic love. Children with this type of affinity do not choose to become friends because of shared interests or comforts; Rather, as Anias believes, “childhood friendship, more lethal, simply happens.”

These uniquely compelling relationships can feel like fate. For Agnes, for example, her life circumstances – who her family is, where she was born – seem arbitrary. However, her friendship with Fabien is “no accident”. In Agnès’ retrospective, Fabienne is not a girl but a mythical character, at once human and inhuman, whose presence is evidence of Li’s larger argument. All of us, whether we realize it or not, are constantly engaged in the process of myth-making in an effort to make sense of the inexplicable—that is, the motives and desires of those dear to us, the curious control of our emotions.

Yet, as Agnes herself admits, “What is myth but a veil arranged to cover what is hideous or boring?” The more I cut this book out, the more the problem of “ugly or boring” becomes apparent. Less than a year after leaving Agnes, she returns to the village and to Fabian. The book-writing “game” and the adventure that followed is over. What was briefly real in the game – the dramatic events of the book’s publication and its aftermath that Fabian “made it happen”, using Agnes as her puppet – remains unrealistic. While Agnes hopes the two will escape to Paris or even America, Fabian’s imagination is reaching its limits. Now that adulthood approaches, expectations of marriage and childbearing are inevitable. Despite everything that temporarily made life different, the writers’ game didn’t fundamentally change the way their world worked: “Can’t you see,” Fabian exclaims, “that we’ve already had the best time of our lives?”

However, what Fabian does not understand is what we slowly understand about Agnes throughout the course of the novel. Ostensibly guided by Fabian, her publisher and principal, or later, her husband, Agnes appears passive, while the other characters seem to have agency and self-determination. But this apparent negativity is just a facade. We realize as the story progresses that the true source of Agnès’ independence lies in the epic character of Fabienne that she drew for us – and took freedom with her. The book’s deep sadness is revealed in the partial traces we see of real human Fabian behind the mysterious veil of the Agnes myth.

As an adult, Agnes grows a flock of geese. She speculates, “If geese ever dreamed, they alone know that the world will never even be allowed to glimpse those dreams, and only they know that the world has no right to judge them.” Despite the fact that she’s the first-person narrator, Agnes also knows that her inner dream world is hidden, and she chooses to keep much of it as such. That’s what makes goose book Demands a careful and conclusive read. The fun lies in seeing indirect and imperfect glimpses, not of the stories you tell, but of the secrets you keep.

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