Reviewed by Sara Raap
There were two things that grabbed me in the description of Yiyun Li‘s Kinder Than Solitude. On the one hand there is a mystery at the heart of the story, and I like a nice mystery, especially when the book isn’t so much about who did it, but more about how it affected those surrounding it, and on the other hand this is a story taking place in China, written by a Chinese/American (Li left China for the United States after earning her B.S. at Peking University), which in my mind means that the book is reminiscent of a different culture and a different way of looking at life.
The book is divided into two parts, alternating between the two. In one storyline we read about the lives of Ruyu, Moran and Boyang as teenagers in Beijing. Moran and Boyang are best friends who live in the same housing square. Ruyu is an orphan who later moves to the square, to her ‘aunt and uncle’ (family of the two great-aunts that found her on their doorstep) and their older daughter Shaoai. Ruyu is a very analytical and unemotional girl, something which catches everyone who meets her off-guard. During that time, an accident happens to Shaoai because of Ruyu, an accident which haunts them for the rest of their lives. In the other storyline it is twenty years later and the accident in their youth has led to a conclusion only Boyang has to deal with in Beijing. Ruyu and Moran have both emigrated to the United States, Ruyu working for a family and their friends, without starting any personal attachments, and Moran is living by herself but still unable to let go of her ex-husband. All of them have trouble maintaining relationships with others and live in solitude. The new events with regards to the accident of Shaoai force them to look at their lives as they are, and deal with their solitude.
I’m happy to say that the two expectations I had when requesting this book (the mystery and the different world view) were not disappointed. Li writes beautifully about daily life in Beijing for both common folk and rich people, for teenagers going to school, for teenagers protesting against those in charge and for their parents. She also writes (from experience, I am assuming) about the culture shock experienced by Ruyu and Moran when they come to the United States. On top of that, you get the contemplations about how the mystery has affected Boyan, Ruyu and Moran differently, but for each of them resulting in solitude. The result is a beautiful book. It took some getting used to the language used, which is very descriptive, but after a couple of pages the book had me hooked. I highly recommend this book for those who like to read about the effects of a traumatic event, or about life in China for a couple of teenagers in the early nineties. I give this book four out of five stars.
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Read more of Sara’s book reviews on her blog, divinenanny.nl.
Ebook available for Kinder Than Solitude.