I thoroughly enjoyed Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and looked forward to reading this novel. It begins with the death of a woman, Shaoai, who has been incapacitated since being poisoned 21 years earlier. Boyang, a prosperous businessman and friend of the family, is handling the funeral arrangements. He has emailed news of the death to his childhood friends Moran and Ruyu, women who are now living in the U.S. but expects no answer from them. There has been no answer to any of his regular emails about Shaoai’s condition.
Ruyu, an orphan brought up by two Catholic great-aunts, had learned to hold herself aloof from others. She had God in her life and needed no one else. She is sent to Beijing for school, to live with Shaoai’s family. Boyang and Moran, inseparable friends, live in the same courtyard and adopt the peculiar girl, including her in their normal childhood pursuits, such as biking and swimming, hoping to bring her out of herself and making her more like them: warm and open and happy.
However, as we get to know the three as adults, it becomes apparent that just the opposite has happened. Moran and Boyang, like Ruyu, shut themselves off from others. And from the past. The “coldness of silence” holds each of them in an icy fortress.
The story moves back and forth in time as well as alternating between the three former friends. It has elements of a murder mystery: who poisoned Shaoai? The chemical was traced to Boyang’s mother’s lab, which the three friends had just visited. It also has elements of a political allegory: Shaoai’s poisoning occurred just after the Tiananmen Square protests. A little older than the three friends, her radical politics had cost her a place at university. Her silencing, gradual decline, and death reflect the fate of the protestors and their dreams of democracy.
While I wanted to learn who poisoned Shaoai, I struggled with much of the book. Their sad and drab lives do not make for the most enjoyable reading. There are no large events to spark the long stretch between being introduced to these peculiar people and learning the truth. Or something like the truth. I enjoyed Li’s prose, though some of the philosophical bits made me stop and reread them several times, koans that only reluctantly yielded up a semblance of meaning.
I kept reading because I wondered what would happen to these three people, so damaged by a single event in their childhood, their lives warped and left empty. Or rather kept empty, by constant and ruthless exercise of the will. We all find our own balance between solitude and society, but these three represent something quite new to me. That to me is the real mystery, more urgent than knowing what actually caused Shaoai’s death.
What novel have you read that contains a mystery, yet is not a traditional mystery novel?