Farrar, Straus and Giroux
“Life is like an eternal becoming / But life is always a pain,” Lou Reed sang in “What’s Good,” a track from his 1992 album. magic and loss. “Now life is like death without living / This is what life is like without you.”
Many characters from Wednesday’s child, the new collection of Yiyun Li, can tell. The short stories in Li’s book mostly focus on people trying to get back on their feet after some sort of loss, dealing with angst that takes its time, surging out of its dormancy at unexpected times. As Li says, “True grief, beginning with disbelief and often ending elsewhere, was never too late. »
The collection opens with the title story, which refers to the old nursery rhyme: “Wednesday’s child is full of misfortune”. The story follows Rosalie, a woman who took a trip to Europe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few years prior, Rosalie’s daughter, Marcie, committed suicide at age 15, shocking the woman and her husband, Dan. Rosalie’s mother offers no comfort and tells her daughter, “One day you should think about the mistakes you made. I’m not saying now, of course. Maybe it’s too soon… Every time a child chooses this path, you have to wonder what the parents did.
The story is deeply internal, featuring Rosalie arguing with herself, writing in notebooks, still not knowing what to do with her grief, or how to put it into words: “Life is held together by imprecise words and inaccurate thoughts. to go after every statement persistently until the seam comes undone? It’s a spellbinding and beautiful story, reminiscent of Li’s brilliant 2019 novel, Where the reasons end — both interrogate the inadequacy of language to shape loss, and both use language perfectly to illuminate the sharp angles of grief.
In “Alone”, Li focuses on Suchen, whom the reader first encounters at an Idaho ski resort restaurant, reluctantly drawn into a conversation with a man named Walter. Suchen’s marriage recently fell apart and after donating her estate to Goodwill, she left for Canada, originally planning to throw herself off a ferry, making her death look like an accident. But she found herself in Idaho, not knowing what to do with herself.
When Walter reveals that his wife died earlier in the year, Suchen is moved to tell him about her own past: When she was 13, she and five other friends planned to kill themselves together. She balked at the last minute, the sole survivor of a tragedy that tore her community apart. “You want to ask why,” she told Walter. “Everyone did. The truth is, I couldn’t answer that question at the time and I still can’t answer it. All I can tell you is that it’s not was not an impulsive action. We talked, we planned and we carried it out almost to the end.”
The story showcases Li’s gift for dialogue and his deep understanding of human connection. At the end, Suchen and Walter both feel “vaguely comforted” by their meeting, but not in the way the reader might expect: Li is a master at understanding human emotions, but her tenderness never give in to sentimentality.
The collection’s penultimate story, “When we were happy, we had other names,” is perhaps the most heartbreaking. It opens with a couple, Jiayu and Chris, at a funeral home, holding services for their son, Evan, who died by suicide. “How could something so colossal find and trap them, thought Jiayu, when they were so ordinary, so unambitious, so quiet?” Li writes. “The death of a child belonged to another realm, that of a Greek tragedy or a cutesy film. What was the probability that an ant would be struck by lightning? And for the ant to survive and work hard? With what wounds?
Jiayu, not knowing what else to do, starts up a spreadsheet, listing all the people she has met who are now dead. She hopes it will keep her from thinking about her late son, but fears the exercise is pointless: “Evan was there all the time: in the elaborate new recipes she tried on the weekends, in the vases of flowers that she placed around the house to combat the gloom, in the hollow voice of the application of guided meditations that brought her a little respite from her heartache.”
It’s a great story that takes a turn as Jiayu concentrates on an entry in the spreadsheet and finds an unexpected connection – it doesn’t really bring him any relief or relief but gives him the opportunity to reflect, to cry deeper. Li inhabits Jiayu perfectly, showing a keen understanding of someone devastated by loss, not knowing how to navigate a life that will never be the same again.
And that kind of compassion, coupled with Li’s beautiful prose and painstaking attention to detail, is what makes these stories so beautiful and accomplished. It is a picture-perfect collection from a writer at the top of her game, and a heartbreaking look at how loss not only changes the bereaved, but their entire lives: “The world was not new and offered little evidence that it ever would be. again,” as Li writes. “Perhaps the grief was the acknowledgment of having run out of illusions.”