Thursday, August 24, 2006

Good Prayers, Great Stories

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is Yiyun Li's highly acclaimed short story collection which won the inaugeral Frank O'Connor Short Story Award among others.

If proof were ever needed that US MFA programmes don't necessarily churn out writing clones, Li amply provides it. (She attended the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop). Her writing is fresh, lyrical - yet at times deeply disturbing. The short stories did precisely what short stories should do: illuminate small lives in telling snapshots, walk around in your head long after the few pages that contained them are read, shake you up.

It wasn't the best holiday reading - the collection made me feel weighted with melancholy for all the tangled lives Li depicts and the necessary makeshift compromises her characters are forced to make. I found it hard to snap out of the little worlds Li creates.

Most of the stories take place in a rural and small town China struggling with economic change and the move to a more free-market econonomy.

All human messiness is here. In Love in the Marketplace a schoolteacher obsessed with the film Casablanca, is the victim of a broken promise. A stranger who arrives in the market place offering to slash his arm with a knife for money is the only person who seems able to honour his word.

Extra is a hugely compassionate story about a middle-aged woman made redundant from her garment factory job. There's no way Granny Lin can survive on her dwindling savings and she reluctantly accepts a marriage of convenience to a sick old man. When he dies, she takes a job as a cleaner in a private school where she befriends a lonely little boy as much a reject as she is. Through both encounters, her eyes are opened for the first time in her life to the possibility and nature of love.

The Prince of Nebraska is the story of a complicated love triangle. Sasha, pregnant and on her way to an abortion clinic in Chicago seeks Boshen's help. Both of them are involved with the enigmatic Yang, a disgraced Chinese Opera singer. An unusual compromise is worked out between them for a love that does not fit neatly into the box of a conventional relationship.

But my favourite story - simply because I've come across a story narrated in this way before - was Persimmons. The slaying of local government officials puts a whole village under the curse of drought. The truth of what actually happened emerges gradually. Li writes the story in the first-person plural ("we") voice, as the whole doomed village speaks in one voice.

Would I recommend it?

I'd say it was a must-read, especially if you enjoy short-fiction or write it yourself. It deserved all the awards it received and is the best book I've read so far this year. (Sorry for gushing!)

If you want to read more about the author or the book, Yiyun Li has a website.


sympozium said...

You might enjoy Mary Yukari-Waters's short story collection as well - "The Laws of Evening" - very lyrical and melancholic.

Ted Mahsun said...

Ooh! I must get this!

bibliobibuli said...

thanks sympozium - i looked at in on amzon and it looks very interesting

ted - borrow also can (but i know lah ... the desire to own books ... it's a bit like fostering a child when you want one of your own