The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li shook me up. It affected me like a slow poison. By the time I figured out what was going on, my heart was already breaking from it. Breaking for so many reasons, not the least of which was my sickening awareness that I had been siding with my enemy. I got a view of my own interior that I rarely glimpse, and it made me cringe. The book is incredible and glorious and unsparing.
Book of Goose is narrated by Agnès and tells the story of two friends—Fabienne and Agnès—who grow up together as odd and largely unseen twelve-year-olds in the poor, backwater village of St. Remy, France. Fabienne is witchy and Agnès admires and relies on her even though Fabienne often insults her and treats her poorly.
In describing her relationship to Fabienne, Agnès says:
…M. Devaux did not know the secret of being Fabienne’s true friend: to stay still in her shadow, to be as empty as the air around her, and to be everywhere with her.
Fabienne is not particularly likable. At one point, Agnès is concerned that the two of them are giving M. Devaux “the wrong idea.” Fabienne responds:
“That’s the point…Why would be want to give anyone the right idea about anything? We want him to think he’s important to us…We like to see people proved wrong…Don’t you think?”
One day Fabienne comes up with a “game.” Together they would write a book. Fabienne would dictate the stories and Agnès would write them down. It’s a series of grisly tales in which babies die in various gruesome ways, including feeding the corpse of one infant to the pigs.
Surprisingly the book finds a publisher and Fabienne insists that Agnès take credit for the book. The book, titled Les Enfants Heureux, which means Happy Children in English, becomes a sensation throughout Europe, particularly because Agnès is so young and the stories are both gruesome and imaginative
Eventually Agnès is forced to attend a “finishing school” in England, in order to groom her for her future as a celebrated author. The matriarch, Mrs. Townsend, requires the students to call her “Kazumi.” Agnès describes her this way:
Mrs. Townsend was the kind of person whose approval you feel you must win, even though you cannot understand why you feel this way. She was not benevolent, but fair. Maybe god is like that too.
One day I would learn that Mrs. Townsend was a good record keeper. Of her own life and, for the duration when I was under her supervision, my life. People like Mrs. Townsend, who are obsessed with keeping a full account of their lives, are like artists who create optical illusions. A year is a year anywhere, a day is a day for everyone, and yet with a few tricks these archivists make others believe that they have packed something into their days, something precious, enviable, everlasting, that is not available to everyone.
Finally, as Agnès is nearing the end of her account of her friendship with Fabienne, she says this about how they relied on their imaginations to relieve them of their difficult lives:
A hard life, unlike what we were taught at school, did not make us virtuous; the hardest life was the most boring, the most unrewarding. How else could we overcome this boredom but to bring ourselves up in our own make-believe, which, as we grew older, had become more elaborate, more exhilarating, and most of all, closer to the truth? What was wrong with the muddy muck underneath our feet if we could give it the power to track unseen beings wandering around in the dark? What was a cold tombstone but a door that opened to our own secret, warm chamber? We were not liars, but we made our own truths, extravagant as we needed them to be, fantastic as our moods required. Built from scratch like our books, our game had banished M. Devaux when he became a trouble for us, catapulted me into this English finishing school, and made Meaker my only true friend in this foreign land. Our make-beliefs were our allies. How else could we thrive, if not for them: unseen, nameless, patient, always on our side.
The story of these two children and how their lives play out is tragic. We see, through the eyes of these two odd, brave, talented misfits how as a culture we crush those who are too different from us, try to scrub clean any darkness in the imagination. Yiyun Li shows us in bleak detail how not only does the world crush the misfit, but, worse, we crush ourselves, forcing our inner artist, our inner weirdo to die when we bend her to conform to what is more acceptable.
Toward the end of the book, after Agnès has given the full accounting of it all, I wondered if the difference between the diabolical and the divine might simply be how willing I am to be disturbed, how willing I am to have something new shake up my thinking. The Book of Goose was, without question, divine.
You can buy The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li at your local bookstore, get it at the library, or order it online at:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >