A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li

Over the years, the staff at the Ivy Bookshop, my local indie bookstore, have introduced me to many of what have become my favorite books: Stoner, Old Filth, and The Sleeping Dictionary to name just a few. I always go there before my book club’s annual book selection night, and their recommendations are usually the ones we like the best. So when they put up a display of books by Chinese and Japanese authors with lovely covers from Vintage International and Random House, I immediately wanted one of each. Perhaps I will end up there, but for now I’m starting with four.

And what a way to start! Yiyun Li’s short stories bring to life a world of people far removed from the headlines and stereotypes. Some are set in China and some in the U.S., but most include or reference the tension of sons, daughters, or fiancés who have gone to the U.S. to study and may or may not return. All are told in the voice of a storyteller, one who gives us an entrée into the lives of ordinary people with astonishing stories to tell. Each person feels like someone we know quite well.

What I found most fascinating is the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the first story, “Granny Lin”, the title character seems like many elderly women I've known who have been sidelined throughout their lives, following advice that turns out wrong, working hard. Yet she is uniquely herself. Her neighbor says of her, “. . . were there one honest person left on earth, it would be you.” She loves working as a maid at an exclusive private school where “Every meal is a banquet.” and takes on extra work in the laundry. There, she encounters a young boy who is “the son of a disfavored wife” and they become friends.

I love the way Li uses subtle turns of phrase, as well as proverbs, aphorisms, and references to mythology to convey the flavor of Chinese dialogue. For instance, a boy vowing vengeance on a gang who beat up his brother says, “Boys of the Song family are not soft persimmons for others to squeeze.” A woman says of a man who has been “married three times, and three times the wife died. They say he has the fate of a diamond.” She explains that “His life is as hard as a diamond and whoever he marries will be damaged.”

Also, alluding to a cultural factor that exists in China—and in the U.S. as well, though perhaps more covertly—the smallest happiness must be negotiated against totalitarian powers. These powers may be the state with their one-child policy, or pompous, pampered officials who make free with the lives of their peasant comrades. They may be school officials or parents whose expectations can feel like shackles.

Part of this negotiation is what can be said and what cannot be said, whether out of modesty or loneliness or fear of retribution. There are many silences in these stories. The title story brilliantly explores this theme: the elderly Mr. Shi comes to visit his daughter in the Midwest town where she works in a college library. He befriends a woman from Iran, even though neither speaks much English, and tries to talk with his daughter. The communication between them, in words but also in the food he cooks for her, shifts in the course of the story. His daughter says that a new language “makes you a new person.”

Sometimes the reference to the U.S. may be simply the name of a film. In “Love in the Marketplace”, Sansan is called Miss Casablanca by her students because she shows the film five or six times a semester. I remember my son watching that film over and over. For Sansan, a 32-year-old spinster, a promise is a promise. We go with her to see her mother who sells seasoned eggs in the marketplace. The lives of these two women may seem small, but their choices and the integrity with which they make them loom large. They linger in my memory long after I have finished the story, as I ponder the details of their stories and the larger human context.

What short story collection have you read that lingers in your mind?

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