A magnificent, beguiling tale winding from the postwar rural provinces to Paris, from an English boarding school, to the quiet Pennsylvania home where a woman can live without her past, The Book of Goose is a story of disturbing intimacy and obsession, of exploitation and strength of will, by the celebrated author Yiyun Li. Fabienne is dead. Her childhood best friend, Agnès, receives the news in America, far from the French countryside where the two girls were raised--the place that Fabienne helped Agnès escape ten years ago. Now, Agnès is free to tell her story. As children in a war-ravaged, backwater town, they'd built a private world, invisible to everyone but themselves--until Fabienne hatched the plan that would change everything, launching Agnès on an epic trajectory through fame, fortune, and terrible loss.
The story is deceptively simple, starting out with their friendship and games, and reminding me a little of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. But it soon diverges and becomes very much its own story. Agnès claims that she was the passive one doing Fabienne's bidding, but ultimately I think Agnès is still telling her own story and either fabricating events or rewriting them to suit her own purposes, maybe even a self-deception to release herself from fault. There are some beautiful lines in the book, and those who enjoy literary fiction will find a lot to mull over. I felt distanced from Agnès, despite the fact that she was narrating the whole story, and got a little bogged down in the middle, but overall I'm not sorry I read it.
This is a subtle tale. It is character driven and the limited plot is moved forward by curiosity about the impact of the deception. It is beautifully written and easy to tell that the author enjoys wordplay. She captured the intimacy of youthful friendship, while drawing the reader into their world. It is a wonderful reading experience for those who enjoy quiet stories about human connections.
Told from the point of view of an adult Agnes, this novel evokes the intensity of childhood friendships and the impossibility of returning to a life once you've left it. The games the girls play to amuse themselves, are games in which the emotions, and even the fates, of the people they target are utterly unimportant to them and these are girls whose precocity allows them to do real damage. This is a book about how two girls, utterly powerless to affect anything and stuck in the roles they were born into, took charge of their lives using their wits and their willingness to do what they needed to do. Their actions were often monstrous, but also necessary to their survival, even if in one case it wasn't enough.
I loved this book with its deeply flawed characters and beautiful writing. It's not a book for everyone, but if you're comfortable feeling uneasy, you might love it, too.
*Book #137/322 I have read of the shortlisted Morning News Tournament of Books
I say uncomfortable, because the main characters are neither familiar types nor particularly empathetic. Fabienne is at times aggressive, manipulative,
Doomed by fate to lives constrained by poverty, hunger, and general awfulness, the girls cope in very different ways, Fabienne’s frustration and darkness diametrically opposed to Agnes’s passive compliance. Yet together they create for themselves a sort of co-dependent sanctuary bounded by imagination, games, and shared understanding. This fragile balance is disrupted when one of their “games” results in Agnes being plucked out of their little village and given a chance to live a larger life as a critically acclaimed child author. How will this experience reshape the way they interact with the world and each other? Let’s just say that it’s complicated.
The author, Yiyun Li, isn’t offering any easy explanations or predictable plot structures. If you’re comfortable with that, then there’s much to enjoy here: Li is a gifted writer and the “differentness” of this is refreshing and compelling. Just know what you’re getting into!
There's also the tricky question of time. The girls' friendship is intense, but I suspect it might not be any less intense than the friendships that many other girls' their age have before the rest of their lives -- love, sex, work, responsibility and maybe children -- rushes in. In "The Book of Goose" Fabienne and Agnés exist in a sort of liminal space between childhood and adulthood, and what they have is necessarily fragile and fleeting. They're both smart enough to know it. What impressed me most about "The Book of Goose" is that Fabienne's talent is also framed in similar terms. Fabienne has no real desire to be a famous literary type: for her, telling stories is a game. But the game that the girls are playing cannot survive its own inherent contradictions: both separation and exposure would spell its end.
There's a larger story here about the nature of genius and the precarity of all of our lives. The author presents genius as a wondrous, alchemical quality, dependent both on raw talent and on the emotional and social resources that are necessary to give it shape. Fabienne seems to have the sort of detachment that great writers often display in their works, but the fact that she can't really take ownership of her own voice is telling. It's also worth noting that Agnés and Fabienne's story is further marked by other seemingly random tragedies. While the end of their precocious literary career can be seen as another sort of tragedy, the book's two main protagonists are no strangers to misfortune or injustice. By the time we reach the end of the book, it seems a small miracle that Fabienne's untutored literary mind and the girls' difficult life circumstances produced so much as a book of short stories and a close friendship. The world that Li describes in "The Book of Goose" is one that constantly forecloses on our most dazzling possibilities even as it offers us other ways to survive. To say that I found this book unbearably sad verges, if that's possible, on understatement.
I also noted that Li herself is a Chinese-American, currently on the faculty at Princeton, who has lived an interesting and in many ways accomplished life. I could find anything in her biography, however, that might connect her to this novel's rural French setting. Seen from that perspective, "The Book of Goose" is a truly impressive product of the imagination. I was deeply impressed by how well the author evoked a time in which the French countryside felt worlds away from any place of real importance. To avoid all of the usual "life in Provence" clichés would have been more than enough, but this one's a real time machine. It's is one of those works that examines the question of literary talent while, at the same time, announcing its presence. In other words, "The Book of Goose" is a very good novel, and Yiyun Li is the real thing.
Most of this novel is a linear remembrance by Agnés of those few years of their youth when she catapulted to fame as a supposed child prodigy author. But her greatest regret was that their game ended up separating these two bosom friends. Agnés endures mistreatment and worse at the hands of adults in Paris and later in England. Always though she longs to return to her friend, Fabienne.
This is wonderful writing by Yiyun Li. Fresh and alive, yet as might be expected, full of insight into the very nature of composition and creativity and more. I found Agnés’ story to be fully captivating, though I wished there were more of Fabienne especially in the latter half of the novel. Her driving force, once removed, cuts both Agnés and the novel adrift, at the mercy of a thoroughly unpleasant character in Mrs Townsend. And this probably contributes to the feeling that the ending is less than what one might hope. Even you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is you were hoping for.
Easily recommended, though with slight reservations.