Book review: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (2005)

This review is written as a contribution for 2015's A Fistful of Reads blind spot challenge which is hosted by A Fistful of Films.

Last month, I reviewed a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which dealt with Nigerians in the US, and so I was curious to also read a short story collection by a Chinese author, which likewise is a window into a culture I was not familiar with.

A multi-award winning debut fiction work. Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Consists of a collection of ten short stories about life in modern China and Chinese Americans in the US. Has also been adapted into a film which I haven’t seen. 

I like the observations about how the rigid system in China sometimes causes unhappiness among its citizens. However the writer’s anti-communistic critique of the regime is too repetitive, so while interesting, the book is a bit monotonous thematically. I do think the messiness of life is handled well by the author, which is not necessarily specific to China, but universal.

My experience of reading short stories is that it’s quite demanding, because you have to keep starting from scratch after a few pages. Worth a read if China and its people interest you. Certainly a brave publication in a country that is notorious for its censorship. Although China is changing, it's still shaped by its traditions and recent history.

Of the two short story books I’ve read in the last six months, I prefer The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009), which I reviewed here

If you’d rather not have the stories spoiled, I recommend you skip over the following summaries:

1) Extra (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Grandma Lin loses her job, but is not given a pension, so she must figure out how to get by on her own. She marries an old senile gentleman who has wealth, he dies, and she inherits nothing. A relative of the deceased offers her a job opportunity at a private school. Lin cleans and does laundry, and forms a friendship with a 6-year boy named Kang, who is as much a reject as she is. Grandma Lin takes pity on him. Kang is from a divided family, where the father has a new wife, and the existing wife and child(Kang) are no longer desired. This is why Kang has been sent away to the school. Kang disappears and is found again, but Lin is fired due to lack of responsibility towards Kang. On her departure from the school her handbag is stolen, luckily she kept her money in her lunchbox. Lin speculates inwardly about missing out on love, she only had temporary loving moments in her life.

Thoughts: A critique of the regime not giving unemployment benefit, and about loneliness

2) After a Life (Rating 9/10)
Summary: Mr and Mrs Su are cousins yet married. Unfortunately their first born girl is spastic and afflicted with cerebral palsy, their daughter lives at home with them. The trio isolate themselves from friends and family, and secretly would like their girl to die so they can be free of the burden. The spastic girl keeps their son away from home, and he is missed. Mr Su becomes friendly with a man his own age. The friend says he wants to live with a younger woman and leave his wife, who is current serving time in prison. His wife is released from jail and is horrified that he would want them to live two women and a man under the same roof.

Thoughts: The Greek tragedy aspects are interesting, that the family are punished for inbreeding. I could empathize with the parenthood issues, even though it’s wrong not acknowledging your child to the surroundings. The parents are to be admired for sacrificing so much to look after the handicapped child, but it’s a high price to pay, and maybe some might say the girl would be better off in a home. It's always going to be the parent's decision how to handle the responsibility, for better or worse. 

3.) Immortality (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Takes place in a fictional country and tells the story of a young man who bears a striking resemblance to a dictator. A family policy is introduced by the dictator which encourages women to produce many children, these women are name “hero mothers”.  A scientist is tortured to death because he asked the dictator to change his politics, having predicted a massive growth in population.
The citizens due to food shortages are encouraged to eat sparrows. The dictator is described as a heartless bastard, who is not afraid of another world war and atomic bombs, because if half the country’s population should be killed, then there will still be 250 million remaining, and the survivors can quickly multiply themselves so the population once again is 500 million citizens.

Thoughts: Different approach to the first two stories, the storytelling is quite fragmented. The exaggerated absurdity is comical about the dictatorship, poverty of communism, and so on. An obvious satirical jab at China's population-control policy.

4.) The Princess of Nebraska (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Sasha is from Mongolia, and now lives in the US. She is too far into her pregnancy to have an abortion. Boshen is openly gay and currently in a proforma marriage with a lesbian friend. He is in love with 18-year-old Yang, who is an actor. The secret police halt Boshen’s efforts in China against AIDS. Boshen and Sasha know each other and consider whether they should raise the child together in US and potentially bring Yang to the United States. It turns out she befriended Yang also, and Yang is the father of her unborn child.

Thoughts: Again, a critique of the regime who are preventing efforts in China against AIDS.
The author does a fine job of depicting how you can fall in love with someone without hardly knowing them.

5.) Love in the Marketplace (Rating 6/10)
Summary: An illiterate mother works at the market, she makes the best eggs with spices. Sanson is called Miss Casablanca by her students, because she shows them this film.
Sanson is abandoned by her lover Tu, he married another woman called Min. But Min dies ten years later. Sanson’s mother wants Sanson to take Tu back without questioning the reasons for the divorce. Sanson doesn’t want to marry him, because it didn’t work out the first time.
The story concludes with a beggar asking people on the street to cut him for money. If they kill him it doesn’t cost anything.

Thoughts: The critique of the regime concerns the capital, if you don’t have citizenship there, you have to settle for lesser jobs outside the city. In comparison, in America they don’t care where you are from. The laws also limit the students opportunities, in that only students with relatives in US could have a passport to study in US.
Can you rekindle with a former love is also what the story is about, which is difficult, if the other person treated you as second best.

6.) Son (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Hung is a 33 year old unmarried software developer, with US citizenship. His mother is a  matchmaker, however Hung is gay.
Mother picks Hung up at the airport in Beijing. She gives him a gold chain and wants Hung to go to church with her. After the father’s death, many of the mother’s letters to Hung have been about her newfound faith.
At an internet café, many of the pages Hung usually frequents have been blocked, for instance gay chat and NY Times.
Hung never becomes irritated by people from churches and listens to them. Hung tells his mother that the state-authorized church see the communist party as their only leader. Hung thinks his mother’s church is deceiving people.
Children beg in Beijing, the mother gives them money, if they agree to go to church with her. Hung is more critical and notices the kids are child labor. Roles are reversed, and Hung now sees himself as someone who is protecting his mother, but she doesn’t want him to.
When the mother returns from the church he admits to homosexuality. She accepts this because “god sees all and understand all”

Thoughts: Questions whether China should block specific internet pages. The story is about empathy among children and their parents, who have grown apart. In this case, Hung perceives the Church differently because he is educated.

7.) The Arrangement (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Uncle Bing is under suspicion for having an affair with a married woman, when her husband is away. Ruolan’s mother is less irritable when unmarried Uncle Bing visits. The mother is sick yet not very old, she doesn’t work, and spends a lot of time in bed.
Ruolan is about 12 or 13 and gets her first period. Ruolan can’t talk to her mother about it and admits she’d rather speak to a stranger on the street about her period than her own mother.
Father and daughter are in the same boat, tied to the woman they are unable to love, but unable to leave. Mother refuses to divorce him.
The father is hardly better, and says he is not her father, she is her mother’s daughter, and Ruolan has to look after her mother. He has another woman he goes to see.
Uncle Bing and Ruolan are friends, he admits that for many of the children the only meal they eat during the day is porridge at school, and this is the main reason they go to school. He also tells her she is adopted.
Ruolan wants to escape and marry Uncle Bing when she becomes of age, he is uncomfortable with this suggestion, and refuses, because he is much older.

Thoughts: Nearly all the main characters are unhappy, so it’s easy to empathize. Uncle Bing is the outsider character who tries to help.

8.) Death is Not A Joke If Told The Right Way (Rating 5/10)
Summary: Visiting Mr and Mrs Pang, the child narrator can take a breather from her blood family and the obligations of being a daughter. Mr Pang is incompetent, and we follow his journey. He dies with dignity in a post office job. The narrator becomes friendly with a group of drop outs.

Thoughts: For me, the weakest short story in the collection. I quite like the ending, but the characters and story are a bit forgettable.

9.) Persimmons (Rating 7/10)
Summary: A couple secretly had a second child but didn’t rapport their firstborn. The authorities hear of this and "one child per family" is painted on their house. Mother commits suicide so Lao Da can have more children, but he loses his mind and kills 17 people. The children go to an orphanage. Lao Da becomes a killer because his son was killed. A group of judges go to the local reservoir and following an insulting remark throw Lao Da’s son into the water. The boy drowns and his father later takes revenge, the reservoir was a place Lao Da had fought for, and for the drowning to happen there made it even worse. 

Thoughts: Deals with one child per family and how it affects a family. The social commentary is that there is a drought, yet it is illegal to beg in the city. The authorities offer no social benefits or handouts. Probably the moral of the story is that on rare occasions a gentle man can turn into a violent man, and it's insinuated the laws and circumstances are at least partly to blame for his frustration.

10.) A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Rating 8/10)
Summary: Mr Shi visits his daughter in Midwestern United States. People are friendly towards him, and impressed, when he tells them he is a retired rocket scientist.
He befriends an elderly lady, the language barrier means they don’t understand everything the other says.
Mr Shi has a dysfunctional relationship with his daughter, she felt he wasn’t present enough during her childhood, and now he feels she is not present during their conversations. Perhaps she is getting her own back. 
Years earlier, he was caught talking to a female employee and degraded. He was unable to talk about what he did at his job and this hurt his home life.
Favorite quote: “life offers more happiness than we are aware of”

Thoughts: The friendship between the elderly lady and Mr Shi was quite heartwarming, who struggle to understand what the other is saying, yet appreciate each other’s company.  In contrast to the father-son relationship, which is so heartbreaking.

Overall rating of book 7/10

Are you a fan of reading short stories? Know any books/movies that depict Chinese people in America? Are you familiar with Yiyun Li or other Chinese authors? As always, comments are welcome.

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