One of the four characters who animate “Kinder than Solitude,” the quietly heartbreaking new novel by Yiyun Li, works at a pharmaceutical company in Massachusetts. It’s not hard to imagine the place: a bland office park, probably tucked off Route 2. The sort of building one does not notice unless traffic has stopped.
All day long Moran, as Li’s character is called, sits alone in a room quality testing health and hygiene products. Many people would be bored by such work. Moran, however, is grateful. “Though her life lacked the poignancy of great happiness and acute pain, she believed she had found, in their places, the blessing of solitude.”
What does one have to experience to make such a bargain? “Kinder than Solitude” provides three different answers. Unfolding in the shadow of Tiananmen Square, it conjures four friends, who grow up around a courtyard together in Beijing in the 1980s.
As the novel begins, events have scattered them to various corners of the United States, and China. Li then narrates us back to the moment they were torn apart. A lesser writer would scramble the possibilities of narrating in two directions. Li, however, uses it to create an intense centrifugal force.
Shuttling between past and present, she whips her reader ever inward, toward the core issue dividing her four main characters. As the book begins, one of them — Shaoai — has died of poisoning. Shaoai was an outspoken radical; she may have been murdered by the government. Or it may have been one of her three friends.
All of them are suspects. There’s Ruyu, an orphan raised by two aging aunts in a provincial town. They send her, as a child, to Beijing carrying a small willow suitcase and a harmonium she deigns not to play. Shaoai, Ruyu’s host family’s daughter, could hardly be less welcoming to a new child in the house.
“I find your lack of interest in anything but your own little faith,” she says to Ruyu, “to be more than horrifying.”
Ruyu, raised by two aunts for whom life “was a bleak stopover,” has already absorbed a staunchness that protects her from this reception. She sticks to herself, or the room of a dying elderly uncle. For pleasure, she prays.
Gradually, Ruyu allows Moran to become a kind of friend. She remains skeptical, however, of permanence. “Even odder was Moran’s confidence,” she thinks, “when speaking of a future in which Ruyu was included.”
Finally a boy — Boyang — whom we see more in the present tense makes them a loose foursome. After Shaoai is poisoned, he takes care of her, suggesting a deeper sense of guilt. He also may take on this role because, in China’s new economy, he has become wealthy.
Li’s characters have always been suspicious of happiness. One need only take a small glimpse at Chinese history to see why this is so. From the horrific starvations of the Great Leap Forward, to the lethal manias of the Communist revolution, the 20th was not a gentle century in China.
The cast of “Kinder than Solitude,” however, is a unique case. By and large, they have made it. Moran and Ruyu wind up in America in university towns in the United States. Moran drives a BMW.
The art in “Kinder than Solitude” lies in how Li shows us how her characters arrives at this point of view. She sets to this task with an unusual amount of patience, and a minimum of creative enhancements to the English language. Her sentences are as polished as stones that have lain at the bottom of a lake for decades. They slip pleasingly through your mind as you turn the pages.
Her true gift — learned by close study of Ivan Turgenev and William Trevor — is old-fashioned storytelling. Inherent in this practice is a sense that a life, a whole life, can be captured on pages, and that certain lives are fated to be tragic. One by one, Li’s characters slot into this belief, like anachronisms in the 21st century.
Like Alice Munro, whom she has clearly studied, Li allows plot to do much of her work.
Moran comes to the United States with two suitcases and a husband. She divorces, marries again, and then divorces this man, an American. “You travel so lightly,” he notices, when she prepares to leave. Moran never allows her parents to visit.
Ruyu travels with an even lighter step. A marriage and a failed career lie in her past. In the present, she has become a kind of café worker, who occasionally helps cater to a set of rich Bay Area friends.
Boyang, alone, stays behind in China, and begins resembling a late capitalist. He dates a girl so young she uses emoticons without irony. When he is bored with her, he picks up a new girl. Everything, for him, is a transaction. “Happiness, if not on display, retains some value for later,” he thinks at one point. “[G]rief turned inward only becomes toxic.”
Unlike Mo Yan or Ma Jian, Li approaches her country’s history at an angle. Her characters are the frame. Still, “Kinder than Solitude” reads like a fictional form of grief for women like Shaoai, the ones who stayed behind, were outspoken, and paid a price during Tiananmen.
She is the nucleus of this book, around which Moran, Boyang, and Ruyu orbit. They deal with their guilt about her death in different ways. They cut themselves off from connections, and pleasure, which if they must partake of it, do so as if it were fate, or medicine. The greater tragic question this book asks is whether they would have lived that way anyway.John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”