Book Review: “The Book of Goose,” by Yiyun Li

The desire to make people “know how it feels to be us” prompts Fabienne to come up with a new diversion: She will tell Agnès stories; Agnès, who has better penmanship and a “more pleasant look,” will transcribe them and take credit for their authorship. Together, they enlist the town’s postmaster, M. Devaux, who is educated and worldly by St. Rémy standards, to help them revise the manuscript and submit it to a publisher. Against all odds, the book, a series of macabre stories involving the death of a child, becomes a hit, praised for its “ferocious honesty.” Agnès is invited to Paris to promote the book, where she’s hailed as “a savage young chronicler of the postwar life.”

While Fabienne is the engine behind the scheme, it is Agnès — her sense of possibility ignited by her Paris adventures — who turns out to be more skilled at telling the world what it wants to hear, answering questions from the press about her book’s verisimilitude enigmatically. (Here I was reminded of the reception of Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird,” his lurid account of peasant depravity in occupied Poland, which was eagerly embraced as at least semi-autobiographical when it was first published in the United States in 1965 — though one may also detect echoes of the publicity machine Li herself has been subjected to over the years.) “The journalists and critics, mindless people, refused to see that the distance between life and death was always shorter than people are willing to understand,” Agnès reflects.

The distance between fiction and reality is shorter, too. “All worlds, fabricated or not, are equally real. And so they are equally unreal,” Agnès muses, recalling her frustrated efforts to talk about her experiences in the capital with Fabienne. If, for Parisians, the countryside serves as a handy projection for the worst of humanity, then for the villagers, Paris might as well be Neverland. Later, the adult Agnès, married to an American and living in Pennsylvania, experiences a similar dissonance when she’s asked about French fashion or cuisine and imagines sharing some of the more authentic textures of village life with her housewifely interlocutors: “the maggots unearthed by the torrential rain,” or “the screeching of butchered pigs, their panting replaced by a liquid hiss.”

Li, of course, has never been the kind of writer who tells you what you want to hear, and this is surely part of why she has become, while still in her 40s, one of our finest living authors: Her elegant metaphysics never elide the blood and maggots. Agnès and Fabienne succeed in creating a thrillingly illicit world of their own making, one that acknowledges their pain, but Li doesn’t flinch from the girls’ emotional fascism. The indifferent cruelty of the village is re-enacted both in the fictional realm they’ve built and in the way they manipulate, with grave consequences, their real-world elders. Aspects of their hothouse friendship may initially invite comparison to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but as the novel progresses and Agnès lands, at the behest of a P.R.-savvy headmistress, in a British finishing school, I was reminded of the cooler registers of Fleur Jaeggy and Muriel Spark. Their relationship becomes an epistolary one — Fabienne sends Agnès letters under both her own name and that of an invented suitor — and the rules of the game, of their friendship, and indeed, of the novel itself, become increasingly ambiguous.