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In Yiyun Li’s Latest, a Grieving Mother Desperately Clings to Memory

“I am writing with my burnt hand about the nature of fire,” the novelist Ingeborg Bachmann once wrote. With Li too, there is that feeling — her books are documents of survival but they bear wounds as a body might.

“Must I Go” is less immediately autobiographical, although there are little hints scattered throughout: The echoes of Li’s own name in “Lilia,” to say nothing of the character’s unfortunate, heavy-handed last name: “Imbody.” Her lover Roland’s middle name belongs to Li’s son. They are small sparks of continuity and connection in an expansive plot — or so it first seems.

Lilia has led a full life. She married three times and outlived all three husbands. She bore five children, buried one (Lucy) and raised Lucy’s child, Katherine, as her own. When we meet Lilia, she is readying a version of Roland’s diaries to present to Katherine (Roland was Lucy’s father), accompanied by a crippling amount of life advice. Much of the action of the book is just this: Lilia repetitively, even compulsively explaining to Katherine, and by extension the reader, her philosophy of survival, a harsh and doughty stoicism.

Little happens, but I’ve always found the openness, the near shapelessness of Li’s work to be part of its beauty. Her characters are never coerced; they are patiently observed, they are allowed to live, allowed to disappoint.

The core of “Must I Go” is the same as that of “Where Reasons End”: Again, we see a mother desperately trying to prolong her conversation with the dead, to keep her child close. The new book is bloated and unwieldy, however; it lacks the blunt power of its predecessor, which was stark and swift, flensed of artifice. There is a strange feeling of watching Li retreating into a form and narrative structure she has outgrown and outpaced.

There is an image that has always haunted me from Li’s early work. In the short story “Kindness,” a young girl buys a small chick from the market. It gets sick and dies. The girl cannot accept its death. She goes to the kitchen, cracks open an egg and drains it. She tries to squash the dead chick into the empty shell. Begin again, begin again, I imagine her thinking. Let’s start again. So too in these narratives, we feel these desperate resurrections, this attempt to return to the beginning. What did I miss with you? Where did I go wrong? the mothers wonder. It’s worth noting that the title of this new novel is taken from Roland’s diaries; it’s the one question the mothers don’t ask. They sermonize and theorize, lecture and filibuster. Don’t go just yet; let’s start again. Lilia talks and talks — to Lucy, to Katherine. And then, one day, as an old woman, she hears someone suddenly mention her daughter’s name — “Lucy? Isn’t she dead?” She opens her mouth and no words come.

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