Yiyun Li’s 2005 story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers –
which won four prizes, including the Guardian First Book award – was
admired for taking a calm, Chekhovian look at a changing China and the
lives of Chinese emigrants. It was also an impressive feat of
cross-cultural adaptation, addressing Chinese experience in American
English using mostly European literary models. Born in Beijing in 1972,
Li moved to the US aged 24 to do medical research at the University of
Iowa. She started writing stories after mastering English, finding the
distancing effect of another language helpful, and studied at Iowa’s
Writers’ Workshop before launching her fast-tracked career. Like Jhumpa
Lahiri, who writes in an equally poised way about the children of
Indian immigrants to the US, she is an admirer of the Irish writer
William Trevor, and her stories have a similar subtlety and restraint;
the fact that China is so hot right now is only an incidental part of
her appeal. . . .
The novel is built around a political act: the execution of a young
woman named Gu Shan for allegedly making counter-revolutionary jottings
while serving a 10-year term for criticising the government. But Li’s
characters, with a few exceptions, are marginal people with little
access to officialdom. The execution and its consequences are largely
seen from their perspective – that of people for whom the state is
something to be placated rather than discussed – and the novel
concentrates on the unexpected ways in which the political and the
personal intersect. . . .
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