KINDER THAN SOLITUDE, by Yiyun Li. Random House, 312 pp., $26.
Across two story collections and two novels, each stellar, Yiyun Li has mapped out the cultural clashes between her native China and her current home in the United States. Her raw materials are big splits: political restraint versus cultural freedom, childhood innocence versus careworn maturity. Yet her understated writing also excels at revealing our more intimate internal anxieties. She's a master at capturing emotional disconnection, and how oblivious we can be to it.
The plot of her new novel, "Kinder Than Solitude," is a kind of murder mystery. As it opens in Beijing, Boyang is making funeral arrangements for Shaoai, a family friend who has just died after a chemical poisoning 21 years earlier left her physically and cognitively disabled. Was Shaoai trying to kill herself, or was she killed by Ruyu, the timid, depressed orphan girl adopted into the family? And how much was that depression stoked by Moran, another friend?
Those questions give the novel its narrative shape, but they're also largely beside the point. For Li, whodunit is less interesting than how the poisoning emotionally straitjacketed everybody. Boyang is a cynical womanizer who feels that "this world, like many people in it, inevitably treats a man better when he has little kindness to spare for it." Ruyu lives in the Bay Area as a part-time housekeeper for a wealthy woman whose neuroses over the slightest problems give Ruyu herself an "exemption from participating in life." In Massachusetts, Moran is a workaday chemist who strives to keep her life in just-so order, "a savage routine that cleansed her life to sterility."
Yet this is not a woe-is-them tale: Li doesn't pass judgment on her characters for their hyper-austere responses to a childhood calamity.
Indeed, one idea she tests in "Kinder Than Solitude" is how effective this distancing is as a coping mechanism. When Moran first explored group trips to better understand American life, she tellingly chose to make a jail her field-trip destination. But it turned out to be where she met the man with whom she enjoyed a serious relationship.
Naturally, there are limits to the liberating power of such isolation -- just look at the novel's title. But Li is also a realist, and her characters' recognition of the intensity of their constraints -- that there's a difference between solitude and "never-ending quarantine" -- doesn't play out with sentimental gestures of grief and heartache. Like more subtle storytellers (Alice McDermott and William Trevor come readily to mind), Li uses a plain-spoken style to reveal layers upon layers of psychological drama. Few writers are better at showing just how much chaos lies beneath our efforts to project an outer calm.