The Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li has been on my radar for a while, ever since her 2019 novel Where Reasons End popped up in my Twitter timeline with recommendations from readers I trust. Published last year with equally positive reviews, The Book of Goose is my first experience of Li’s work, but hopefully not my last. It’s a strange, compelling, captivating novel, full of different layers and ideas. On one level, we have a story about childhood friendship, devotion, manipulation and the power dynamics of relationships; but on another, the novel digs deep into the power of storytelling and the games children play to escape boredom – how fantasies can become truths if we pursue them too avidly, blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary. There’s so much to absorb with this one, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a long time to come…
The book opens in 1966 with the passing mention of a death in a letter. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnès – now married and living in America with her husband, Earl – receives news that her childhood friend, Fabienne, has died in childbirth. The letter set off a series of memories for Agnès, reminiscences of her close, intense friendship with Fabienne, the two girls having grown up together in the farming village of Saint Rémy in France.
Rewinding to France in the early 1950s, we find Agnès and Fabienne at thirteen, growing up in a poverty-stricken post-war environment with little external excitement to stimulate their curiosity. As is often the case in such friendships, the two girls are the polar opposites of one another. While Fabienne is the natural leader – bold, creative, insolent and unpolished – Agnès is the more passive of the two – a follower by nature, keen to please Fabienne with her loyalty and compliance.
But were we not, in a sense, two blind girls? One would walk everywhere as though not a single mine were buried in the field. The other would not find the courage to take a step because the whole world was a minefield. Had they not been placed side by side by fate, they would have lived out their different lots. But that was not the case for us. Fabienne and I were in this world together, and we had only each other’s hands to hold on to. She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will. (p. 122)
One of the things Li does so well here is to capture the close, obsessive nature of the girls’ friendship, particularly how Agnès longs to be with Fabienne every spare minute of the day. We see the girls playing games together, often hanging out in the village cemetery, with Agnès posing questions to Fabienne about life’s great mysteries and the possibility of death.
Fabienne frequently invents games for the two friends to play, largely to alleviate the boredom of their lives. One day, she comes up with a plan to write a sensational book as a sort of collaboration between the two girls. With her highly imaginative mind, Fabienne will create a series of macabre, sinister stories, while Agnès will draw on her well-developed penmanship skills to write them down and pose as the book’s author. When it comes to securing a publisher, Fabienne is smart enough to realise that Agnès is best placed to ‘front’ the book, largely due to the latter’s patient, biddable nature and higher standard of education.
Following some input from the local postmaster – a poetry-loving widower Fabienne manipulates as part of her plan – the stories are published to great critical success. Agnès is hailed as a child prodigy, ‘a savage young chronicler of postwar life with a mind drawn to morbidity’. As such, she finds herself on the end of considerable interest from the press, keen to gain an insight into her life and creative talents.
But I [Agnès] was lucky to have come up with how best to present myself as a child author: I was imagining a person who was half Fabienne and half Agnès, and I had no trouble stepping into the shoes of that person. A mysterious girl who had made up for her lack of education with good intuition—that was what the press needed to see. (p. 86)
After serving a useful purpose, the postmaster is swiftly dispatched by Fabienne in another of her manipulative plans – a move that illustrates how calculating she can be when faced with a potential threat.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, literary success opens up some exciting new opportunities for Agnès, who soon finds herself at Woodsway, a prestigious finishing school in England run by the formidable Mrs Townsend. This changes the dynamics between the two childhood friends as Agnès mixes with the other schoolgirls – all from wealthy families of a higher social class – while Fabienne stays in Saint Rémy. In essence, Fabienne seems quite content for Agnès to be out there in the world, experiencing things that will be useful for their forthcoming books.
Despite missing her soulmate terribly, Agnès becomes more assertive and rebellious at Woodsway, while Fabienne continues to orchestrate the dynamics of the girls’ relationship through her letters from home. With Agnès becoming increasingly restless and unhappy with the strict regime at the school, the stage is set for a denouement of sorts, but I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot for fear of revealing any spoilers.
In some respects, The Book of Goose reads like a fairy story or fable with a fatalistic undercurrent throughout – a kind of darkness or unease that permeates the book. Li makes great use of various metaphors and symbols in the narrative – for instance, apples, oranges and knives, with Agnès acting as ‘a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade’. The childhood game of paper-scissors-stone is another highly relevant metaphor, capturing something of the dynamics of the story and its leading players – the smart but manipulative Fabienne and the naïve yet hopeful Agnès.
Often I imagine that living is a game of rock-paper-scissors: fate beats hope, hope beats ignorance, and ignorance beats fate. Or, in a version that has preoccupied me: the fatalistic attracts the hopeful, the hopeful attracts the ignorant, and the ignorant, the fatalistic. (p. 106)
Some of the most beguiling aspects of Goose stem from the philosophical reflections and questions Li weaves into her book. While some of these represent the adult Agnès’ reminiscences of her childhood with Fabienne, others take the form of questions the two girls discuss as adolescents while hanging out in the cemetery. The existential nature of these questions fits so naturally within the text, capturing the kinds of discussions about life, growing up, ghosts and death one could easily imagine happening between girls of this age.
Another element that Li handles particularly well is how fantasies and stories can become forms of ‘truth’ to those involved if pursued very rigorously, blurring the margins between the imaginary and reality. While Fabienne invents fantasies and games as a way of dealing with boredom and an indifferent world, Agnès is thrilled to play along in the hope these fantasies can continue indefinitely.
Fabienne and I had raised ourselves to be the best make-believers. The world was often inconvenient or indifferent to us, and it was our ingenuity that made what was inconvenient and indifferent interesting: the stinging nettles left bloody marks on our legs as we ran, but we pretended that those were the nail scratches of the girls greedy for our attention; […] 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? (p. 307)
Nevertheless, only Fabienne is mature enough to realise these games must come to a natural end. While Agnès wants a form of their childhood to go on forever, Fabienne knows it cannot last. The intensity of their friendship has been sustained by the fantasies of adolescence, but the adult world is beckoning, and their current relationship might struggle to survive. Soon there will be considerable pressure for the girls to get married and have children; it’s what their families expect of them, especially given their upbringing.
This is such a thoughtful, intelligent book, full of meaning and mystery. A captivating story of obsessive childhood friendship and the alluring nature of fantasies. A layered, literary novel – beautiful, strange and beguiling.
The Book of Goose is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.