Must I Go. By Yiyun Li. Random House; 368 pages; $28. Hamish Hamilton; £16.99
IN THE NOVELLA “Where Reasons End” (2019) Yiyun Li (pictured) memorialised her teenage son, who committed suicide in 2017, by means of an imagined dialogue between a bereaved mother and recently departed child. The ghost of another child lost to suicide looms in “Must I Go”, a shrewd new work of fiction from the acclaimed Chinese-American writer.
The 81-year-old Lilia Liska—waspish, fond of aphorisms and the occasional cruel remark—is the bold, brave heart of the book. As she reflects on her long life from the comfort of an upmarket retirement home in San Francisco, Lilia remembers Lucy, the eldest of her five offspring, who killed herself in the early 1970s at the age of 27. Lucy left behind a daughter of her own, Katherine, only a baby at the time, to be raised by Lilia.
Now Katherine is embroiled in a troubled marriage which has itself produced a girl. Lilia wants to set the record straight about Lucy’s origins—both for Katherine’s and her daughter’s sake and for posterity. The means by which Lilia approaches this task is through the recently published diaries of the late Roland Bouley, a Canadian dilettante with whom Lilia had enjoyed a brief, secret affair as a teenager. The fling generated an unforeseen result—and a lasting obsession.
Lilia appears only fleetingly in the memoirs of the philandering Roland as “L”. He had held a great, unrealised, ambition for his own writing life and Lilia heavily annotates his egotistical and posturing diary entries with her own, rather different, view of events. Ms Li has great fun with the tiresome, indolent and slippery Roland, a character crashingly unaware of his own mediocrity and self-centredness. (“The skill of writing deceptive words is a highly sought one,” he observes. “In that sense I am as indispensable as a barber.”)
This form of epistolary novel plus commentary is a departure for the author; it is also reminiscent of the work of such supreme stylists as Henry James or Shirley Hazzard, with each word carefully weighed for effect. “Must I Go” captures some of the rapid changes that took place in America and Europe from the 1940s to 2010, when the novel is set. The sense of a world perpetually in flux and of individual dreams deferred is pervasive throughout, as is Lilia’s painfully walled-up sorrow for the luckless Lucy. It is this emotional undercurrent which softens and humanises both Lilia and the novel, as Ms Li, entirely without sentiment, succeeds in making the reader care profoundly for her uncompromising protagonist.
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