Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li


An unsentimental look at people striving to get ahead

These stories are about Chinese trying to figure out their strange new capitalist world. Long ago, the people were irrevocably severed from ancient traditions, but now they are cut off from the all encompassing revolution that formerly dictated their actions and beliefs. They have to figure things out on their own and you’re out of luck if you don’t have enough cash. Immigrants who venture to America are sucked under by the same sadnesses. Like Li’s novel, The Vagrants, the stories are tragic, about lives crushed by fear, and at times, the stories were so sad, I wondered why the characters bothered going on. I’m not sure if that question is completely answered. It seems that both repressed spied upon life in Communist China and ignored life in dog eat dog capitalist China is terribly cruel.  

I loved "Immortality" in which a young man from a town with a proud history of supplying imperial eunuchs is both blessed and cursed with a resemblance to the dictator. A quiet fable extrapolated to indict an entire country. I also really liked the enjoyable story "Death is not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way" a story about a little girl running around Beijing talking to people who live in an apartment block. A story called “Persimmons” is told in multiple voices and concerns a murder. You get a sense of a small town. Some stories, like "Extra", about the love for an abandoned old lady and a small boy, flirt with sentimentality but still are very memorable.  

Li is a powerful writer, able to suck the reader in with tactile descriptions. The stakes are high in every single paragraph. People are trapped, but people have to cope with it.  I really enjoyed this book.

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