Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

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Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A beautifully written, dark and ultimately quite sad story of how an event in their childhood affects four young Chinese people. It is heartbreaking at times but the quality of the prose is sublime.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Fourth Estate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007329823

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Yiyun Li's Kinder Than Solitude opens with a death but the story goes back much further than that. When orphaned Ruyu arrives in Beijing to stay with a distant relation to go to school, she finds herself sharing a bedroom with the rebellious Shaoai and going to school with the serious Moran and her friend Boyang. Ruyu is not an easy character and her arrival seems to disrupt everyone's lives even though Moran and Boyang look after her. However an 'accident' changes everything. All four of them live with the consequences of what happened either physically or mentally. Moran and Ruyu both leave China and settle in the US, while Boyang and Shaoai stay in China. The book switches between the events of the past and the present.

One of the things that I particularly admired about the book was that the adult version of the characters, particularly Moran and Ruyu, are believable adult versions of the characters that they were when they were younger. This sounds an obvious thing but often the characters portrayed as children seem to be either ostensibly the same people when they are older in books or completely different characters. Here though they retain the essence of their younger selves but are clearly affected by the events that they have been through. It makes the story more believable and ultimately moving.

It's a book that is both thoughtful and often sad. Each one of these young people is very much alone in the world even when they have company. Combined with the strength of Yiyun Li's prose, this philosophical insight is often beautiful and moving. Every now and then a phrase or sentence seems to jump out and beg to be remembered.

If there is one very minor reservation that I have about the book it's that the female characters, who dominate the story, are much more rounded and believable than the males. Poor Boyang seems to melt into the background for almost all of the story while Ruyu, Moran and Shaoai positively jump off the page. You might not like any of the three completely, but they are all fascinating and believable. And sad.

It is the back story that gets most attention and this feels right. The present day sections can feel a little like an unwelcome interruption as the reader wants to find out what did happen with the 'accident'. The publisher describes the book as 'a breathtaking page-turner'. I have to say that while I did want to get to the bottom of the who did what to whom and why aspect, the description suggests a fast paced, action story. At least it does to me. But that's not at all what this is. In fact, it's rather slow and thoughtful, and all the better for that. They were spot on with the 'mesmerizing prose' description though.

I knew the name of Yiyun Li from her winning of the Guardian First Book Award, but I had not got around to reading any of her books. On the basis of this book, I have been missing out and will be eagerly catching up now.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Fourth Estate for sending us this book. They are indeed kinder than solitude.

For more Chinese fiction try Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke. Continuing the Asian theme, if you like Yiuyn Li's style, you will undoubtedly also thoroughly enjoy 1Q84: The Complete Trilogy by Haruki Murakami.

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Buy Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li at


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