Kinder Than Solitude
This is a book that will break your heart. From the uncomfortable opening scene at the crematorium, across continents and decades, this is a longitudinal gut-punch of a novel dealing with loss, guilt, terror and fragility.
The person being burned to ashes in the beginning is Shaoai, a childhood friend of the three main characters who was poisoned (perhaps deliberately, perhaps not) in her youth. She has finally passed after two decades in a coma, and her death brings together our lead trio—Moran, Ruyu and Boyang.
From here, the journey turns inward.
Li pens exquisite prose, with beautifully crafted sentences as philosophical as they are proficient. If I have one critique it is that the language, however beautiful, can sometimes stand in the way of the storytelling. Li is able to meditate on moments, which can subsume the reader into the novel, but at times can also push them out.
This is literary mystery, so of course there’s more to it than solving the crime. This is as much about Shaoai’s poisoner as Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer is about catching a serial killer. What matters isn’t revealing what happened, but exploring the intersection of the lives touched by Shaoai’s coma and death—inhabiting the grief and guilt harbored by the three survivors.
We all have childhood regrets, and we’ve all known someone who never made it to adulthood (though not necessarily linked the way they are here). There are things we would like to change. There are times we wonder why we’re still here and someone else isn’t.
How do we go on with this knowledge? Li doesn’t necessarily answer that question, but she gives us a disarming portrait of three childhood friends coming to terms with a past they can’t quite shake and a mystery that will both intertwine them and isolate them forever.