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Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel

by Yiyun Li

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Unrelentingly bleak. Three friends may or may not be responsible for the poisoning of a fourth. Of the three, one remains in China, the other two go to the US, but all three lead lonely, isolated lives, whether by choice or by bad luck. There is a suggestion that the story is a metaphor for the post-Tienanmen generation and the destruction of the old neighborhoods and ways of Beijing, but it's pretty subtle.

I thought the writing was a little woolly in places - especially when compared to the crystalline prose of her short stories - but there is no doubt that Li's a talented writer and this is a brilliant, if upsetting, look at human nature. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Solitude is not kind in the world of this novel. But there is little that is kind, so solitude becomes a refuge and false haven.

This is a powerful and intensely meditative novel. Children on the treacherous shoals of their teenage years sense the dangers, but don’t really understand the nature of them, and can be helpless to avoid them, especially if they already feel isolated. They say false things, or do seemingly malicious deeds, without fully appreciating the consequences which may then go on to haunt them.

Li writes exquisite prose — this alone is worth the read. These are intensely wrought sentences of astute insights, illustrating rich complexities of thought.
“A born murderess, she had mastered the skill of snuffing out each moment before releasing it to join the other passed moments. Nothing connects one self to another; time effaced does not become memory”

”…his voice had left a crack through which loneliness flooded into her room.”

“If she had ever felt anything close to passion, it was a passion of the obliterating kind: any connection made by another human being, by accident or by intention, had to be erased; the void she maintained around herself was her only meaningful possession.”

The book is littered with aphorisms and observations about the human condition:
“…one’s preparation for departure should begin long before arrival”

“Do not expose your soul uninvited”

“Nothing destroys a livable life more completely than unfounded hope”

“It takes courage to find solace in trivialities, willfulness not to let trivialities usurp one’s life.”

Solitude and loneliness are tiring to read about, never mind experiencing. By the end I felt exhausted, wrung out, from the tension of repression and loneliness that permeates the story. Nonetheless, highly recommended. Just pair it with the right mood accordingly.

(ARC from Random House via NetGalley.) ( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
This book is being discussed by my book club for February 2016. If it wasn't for that fact I am not sure I would have finished it. I'm not saying the book is poorly written but I didn't understand the motivation of the characters nor what the book's overall message was.

Ruyu is an orphan who was raised by two elderly women who were Christians in a provincial city. Ruyu had been told from her early life that God had a purpose for her. When it came time to enter highschool Ruyu was sent to Beijing to stay with a couple who had ties to the great aunts. This was just a few months after the failed revolution in Tianamen Square. The couple had a daughter, Shaoai, who had taken part in the demonstrations. This placed her under suspicion and eventually she was dismissed from her college. Ruyu and two others from her compound, Boyang and Moran, all go to the same high school and spend a great deal of time together. One day when they visit the university chemistry lab where Boyang's mother works one of them steals a chemical. Shaoai ends up being poisoned by the chemical but it is not clear if it was suicide because she was in despair or if one of the others administered it. Shaoai does not die but her mind is destroyed and she needs constant care. More than 20 years later when Shaoai dies is when the book starts. Boyang, who has stayed in Beijing and seen to Shaoai's care, emails Moran and Ruyu who are both living in the United States about her death. The narrative switches back and forth from present day to the past around the time of the poisoning. We see what Moran, Ruyu and Boyang have done with their lives. All of them have been married and divorced and none seem to have any strong ties to any other person.

Salman Rushdie blurbs on the front cover that "This is an exceptional novel..." but I didn't feel that. I can't even ascribe the failings to poor translation because Yiyun Li lives in the US and writes in English. There are some interesting pieces about life in China just after Tianamen Square. The juxtaposition of present day life in China is also interesting but the characters are so wooden and one-dimensional that the whole novel does not work for me. ( )
  gypsysmom | Feb 8, 2016 |
First let me say I loved Yiyun Li's The Vagrants. Kinder Than Solitude--not so much.

The focus here is on four individuals and on an incident that occurred 30 years before the novel opens, at a time when the individuals were in their teens, and which left one of them in a vegetative state. After the incident, Moran and Ruyu left China for the US. Boyand has stayed behind in Peking and become a successful businessman. He has kept in touch with the family of Shaoai, the woman in the vegetative state. Over the years, Boyand periodically emails Moran and Ruyu the status of Shaoai, but otherwise there has been no contact between the three. Boyand is not even aware if Moran and Ruyu receive or read the emails. As the novel opens, Shaoai has just died, and Boyand has dutifully notified Moran and Ruyu. The novel proceeds alternating between the contemporary time, the time of the teen friendship of Moran, Ruyu and Boyand, and the lives of the three survivors over the years since the incident.

Yiyun Li says the book is about characters who have to make sense of a death. I never really connected with the book, and it was not one I looked forward to picking up each night.

2 1/2 stars ( )
2 vote arubabookwoman | Oct 19, 2015 |
Three young people — Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu — are thrust together by circumstance and familial connection in a poor neighbourhood in Beijing shortly after the Tiananmen Square uprising. They must balance loyalty, fealty, and self-interest in their individual efforts to survive in a world beyond their grasp and possibly their comprehension. For some, love is the prime motivator. For others, the happiness of others. And for still others only the protection of an enclave of privacy matters. A suspicious possible poisoning and long-delayed death explodes their tiny network and the three take very different trajectories through life finding, each, their separate existential solitude. And whatever small additions that they allow to accrue or intrude upon that solitude.

This is difficult novel to like. Li’s theme of existential estrangement carries over into the structure of her telling as she follows the lives of the three young people separately twenty years after the events of their youth. Connection is frustrated (Moran and Ruyu never reply to Boyang’s email updates). Love, and even friendship, are impossible. To survive at all seems to require retreat into a theoretical shell of a human being. ‘Theoretical’ because it often feels as though Li is working through a narrative challenge set by French and Russian writers, some of whom she references, rather than exploring real relationships, if ‘real’ here can mean anything more than mundane. While I grew to respect the problem that Li had set herself, I didn’t warm to the execution, neither the structure, the characters, nor the plot, such as it is. Of course maybe I’m not supposed to warm to such cold figures. But then I think I would prefer even more heightened representation of reality to achieve that Brechtian emotional distance.

Perhaps on another day I might have appreciated this novel more. But for now, not recommended. ( )
1 vote RandyMetcalfe | Jun 3, 2015 |
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A tale set in America and China follows the experiences of three people who in their youths were involved in a mysterious accident that resulted in a friend's fatal poisoning and years later are haunted by the possibility that one of them actually committed a murder.… (more)

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