Kinder Than Solitude by Li Yiyun
At the core of Kinder Than Solitude, Yiyun Li’s starkly beautiful novel, is a mysterious poisoning that bears a striking resemblance to the 1995 case of Zhu Ling, a Tsinghua University student who was dosed with high levels of the heavy metal thallium. She was given Prussian blue, an antidote that kept her alive, but she sustained serious permanent neurological damage. Zhu Ling still cannot speak, is largely paralyzed and almost blind.
In Yiyun Li’s novel, a young woman named Shaoai is also poisoned and given the same antidote. She lives for 21 years in a similarly damaged state.
The novel opens with her death.
The story is set variously in the Beijing of 21 years ago, present-day Beijing, San Francisco and the American Midwest. But place takes a back seat to a focus on the isolated interior lives—one could say the solitude—of three adults who, as teenagers, shared the trauma of Shaoai’s poisoning.
Boyang—“a stout boy with tanned skin and white, flashing teeth”—and Moran—“a skinny, long-legged girl”—grew up together in a Beijing hutong that shared a courtyard with Shaoai’s family. For Moran,
Growing up in the quadrangle was like growing up with an extended family, and nothing made her happier than loving everyone unreservedly.
Shaoai is like an older sister to the two of them. She
had been the one to take them to the lake, throwing them into the deeper water to make them paddle, laughing at them when they swallowed water, yet all the time she had been within arm’s reach. Even if Shaoai was not a nurturing kind of person, both Moran and Boyang knew her to be a reliable friend.
But the balance of Boyang and Moran’s friendship with Shaoai is disturbed by the arrival of Ruyu, a sullen orphan who is given to talking to God. At fifteen, she has been sent by her two maiden-aunts to board with Shaoai’s family, and she is expected to share Shaoai’s bedroom. Tensions soon build between the two. Ruyu does not seem to know or care about making friends with Moran and Boyang, who innocently include her in their lives. Shaoai, who is 22 and strong-willed, finds Ruyu maddeningly unemotive. The tense scenes between them are both uncomfortable and yet plausible, and Shaoai has other reasons to be on edge.
Though she is supposed to move to university dorms, she is awaiting disciplinary action. She had participated in a democratic protest that turned violent and subsequently refused to recant a statement she posted on the school’s bulletin board the day after the event, calling the government a breeding farm of fascists. When the poisoning occurs, there is doubt as to whether Shaoai might have tried to commit suicide, if it was attempted murder, or just an accident.
Twenty-one years later, when the novel opens, the effect of the the poisoning has left all three scarred and yet unable to move on from it. Moran has left China to get a PhD in chemistry in the American Midwest. A marriage to a much older husband fails, and while she pays for her parents to join her on vacation, it must be outside China for she refuses to go back. Unable to even think privately of her own past, she invents a set of fantasy characters to daydream about.
Boyang, on the surface, is a successful entrepreneur, a “diamond bachelor”. He lives in Beijing and takes part in Shaoai’s caregiving, keeping this a secret from all but Moran and Ruyu, whom he emails monthly on Shaoai’s health. These attempts to communicate go unacknowledged by the women.
Ruyu lives in San Francisco. Twice divorced, she works part time for a middle-class family. No one in her circle knows her real name or her past. Puzzling and provocative, she is the most enigmatic character in the book. Despite the fact that “intimacy and alienation both required an effort beyond [her] willingness”, Ruyu nonetheless exerts a powerful force over the others. In a surprising reunion with Boyang at the novel's end, we see that force has remained undiluted by the passage of time.
Even as we piece together the circumstances of Shaoai’s poisoning, we also come to feel as if Shaoai’s living limbo has held the others in thrall, and that her death opens up the possibility of release.
Toward the end of the book, subtle rays of light penetrate the well-worn grisaille. These infinitesimal shifts of mood are so slight as to perhaps be imagined on the part of the reader. One of the strengths of the book is that it has a philosophical quality that leaves much open for interpretation. The image of Shaoai lying silenced but unforgettable at the novel’s center, however, feels fraught. One can’t help but be reminded that the current generation of Chinese, even in diaspora, must somehow deal with a recent history of deep repression.