Grief is the thing with no illusions

7 months ago 72

Yiyun Li’s third collection of short fiction, Wednesday’s Child, may be full of woe, but it is also full of wonder. Comprising one novella, “Such Common Life”, which was serialized in Zoetrope (2022–3), and ten short stories that have appeared in the New Yorker and Esquire, it circles themes of care-taking and loss.

In the title story a novelist is delayed at a train station in Amsterdam because a man has walked in front of a train. The woman’s teenage daughter, born on a Wednesday, took her life in a similar fashion. The tale echoes Li’s extraordinary novel Where Reasons End (2019), a dialogue between a mother and her late son inspired by the author’s son, Vincent, who died by suicide in 2017. “Words fall short, yes”, Li wrote. “But sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable.”

The losses accumulate in Wednesday’s Child. A sister grieves the younger brother she raised (a “placeholder” for a child), who has died of an overdose. A woman with suicidal ideation tells a stranger about her being the sole survivor of a suicide pact among six thirteen-year-old girls. A mother mourning a child creates a spreadsheet of all the people she knows who have died and what she remembers of them, refusing to let the dead become “generally and generically dead”.

Some characters mourn past selves or alternative lives. “Perhaps grief was the recognition of having run out of illusions”, one reflects. Several women recall being taken advantage of by older men in their youth. The mother of an autistic child worries that he is fated to a life of loneliness. Two middle-aged friends – once certain they would strike Silicon Valley gold – tally their disappointments.

The tragedies themselves occur off stage, in what Li has dubbed “the beforemath”, with the walking wounded left to limp on across it. If the subject matter sounds bleak, Li’s voice is anything but: her subversive wit makes the stories not only bearable but also surprisingly funny. She is careful to make a distinction between sad stories and unhappy characters – a refreshing turn amid the current trend for “sad girl lit”. Life does not go easy on her characters, but, as Li has said in interview, “sadness has a lot of laughter in it too”.

Wednesday’s Child is also full of unexpected intimacy: a woman listens to the teenage love story of her hairdresser; a steely nanny cares, in her own way, for an indifferent mother. The novella features an octogenarian who tells her carer about her childhood imaginary friends.

Li is a self-confessed plot agnostic – she recently railed against “aboutness” in Harper’s Magazine (October 2022) – and what sets her work apart is the quality of her attention to interiority. She counts her friend the late William Trevor as an influence. “It’s not enough to think about something”, Li has said. “You have to think through.” Born in Beijing in 1972, Li immigrated to Iowa in 1996 to pursue a postgraduate degree in immunology before pivoting to writing. Her word choice reflects the exactitude of a scientist and non-native speaker who doesn’t take meaning for granted.

Li’s body of work includes a memoir, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2017); Tolstoy Together (2021), a reading companion to War and Peace based on her virtual book club during the pandemic; and five novels, including last year’s The Book of Goose (2022). Wednesday’s Child is her first collection of stories since Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010) – and it has been worth the wait. The entries were selected from some thirty stories written over fourteen years. The collection not only coheres thematically, but is greater than the sum of its parts: the stories converse with one other.

As Li writes in her acknowledgments, the period during which these pieces were written was marked by the losses of loved ones who “live among these pages now”. He “was here all the time”, reflects a mother grieving her son: “In the new, elaborate recipes she tried on weekends, in the vases of flowers she placed around the house to combat bleakness, in the hollow voice of the guided-meditations app that brought her little reprieve from heartache”. We are lucky to have Yiyun Li’s clarity of mind as salve for the heart: Wednesday’s Child confirms her mastery of the grammar of grief, as she chips away at cliché and strives to articulate the ineffable.

Mia Levitin is a cultural and literary critic based in London 

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