Book Reviews

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

Random House

Li’s debut collection of short stories is a masterful and heart-breaking exploration of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on family lives and personal identities, in present-day China and America. Lest we think we’ve read all we want to about the barbarism of life under Mao, Li’s fascinating portrait of domestic struggles in a country where the past continues to wreak havoc with the present in vicious and tragic ways should be required reading. The themes linking these stories, several of which have been published in The Paris Review (Plimpton Prize for new writers), The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, and Ploughshares, center around family relationships and cross-cultural anguish, from the failed marriages of "liberated" young adults who’ve emigrated to America to the domestic hells of the older generation so accustomed to unhappiness under Mao that they’ve made a culture of their misery.

From Beijing to Chicago to Inner Mongolia, Li’s characters lead painfully precarious lives. "Extra" is a portrait of Granny Lin, an elderly widow whose pension disappeared into the maw of Mao’s ruinous state-owned factory bankruptcies, becomes a maid at a boarding school outside Beijing where she befriends the lonely six-year-old son of a powerful man and his "disfavored" first wife. Like so many, both are extras, useless in the new society: "The thought of the boy, who is so small and occupies almost no space at all in the world yet who is still in other people’s way and has to be got rid of, saddens Granny Lin." In "After a Life," two elderly Chinese men, both mired in burdensome lives controlled by convention, meet and become friends at the "stockbrokerage." One uses the other as a cover for an affair; the other is hiding the secret of an adult daughter with cerebral palsy and mental retardation, whom he keeps locked away in a room so his neighbors will not see his shame. In "Son," a young gay man living in California returns to China, creator of a eunuch class and oppressor of homosexuals, to visit his mother, who’s abandoned Marx for Jesus. He tries in vain to convince her she’s replaced one false god with another, but the tragic consequences of his argument force him to see that his mother is living her convictions with far more courage than he can live his own. In the striking "Immortality," the charmed life of a fatherless boy with a face that so closely resembles Mao that he’s chosen to be his impersonator after the dictator’s death, ends his days as a self-castrated parasite. And in the title story, an elderly father tries to reconnect with his recently divorced daughter who lives in America and whom he longs to see remarried. "Women in their marriageable twenties and early thirties are like lychees that have been picked from the tree," he warns her. "Each passing day makes them less fresh and less desirable, and only too soon will they lose their value, and have to be gotten rid of at a sale price." What he doesn’t know is that she has seen through his fictions about his own life, including what a sham his marriage has been.

A superb storyteller—subtle, witty, and tender—Li has been compared to Flannery O’Connor and Jhumpa Lahiri, all masters of the inexorability of fate and the secrets concealed by even the blandest lives. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a stunning collection. 

Reviewed by Abby Pollak