Yiyun Li’s second novel wears its complexity lightly. It shifts between three bright teenagers, a boy and two girls, living in Beijing shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and their stories some twenty years later, after the two women have emigrated to the United States, leaving their friend, Boyang, to become a successful businessman in China. The whodunnit aspect – who poisoned a fourth young woman and why – successfully counterbalances Kinder Than Solitude’s otherwise essayistic tendencies. Li’s writing still shows influence, in other words, of her time at both the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and its Writers’ Workshop for fiction.
It is unusual for a novel to have several main characters essentially sharing the same neuroses, yet this never feels like a weakness. Instead, these shared traits – their studied passive aggression, their ‘skill of self-protection’ through isolation and their ‘compulsive purging of the past’ – operate symbolically on another