The death that launches Yiyun Li’s second novel, Kinder Than Solitude, has been a long time coming. Twenty years before, Shaoai was mysteriously poisoned by someone close to her, leaving her crippled and diminished. Her death comes as a great relief for the novel’s three main characters, Moran, Ruyu and Boyang—once childhood friends in China, but now estranged. But with that sigh of relief comes the truth.

The story unfolds in flashes of past and present, dipping between the storylines of the three distant friends to reveal how they have been transformed by the poisoning of Shaoai. Orphan Ruyu, who “defied being known” and avoids interpersonal connections, now lives in California and works as a glorified assistant for a local woman. Moran, who now lives in Wisconsin, goes from relishing life’s ideal moments to removing herself from all moments, past or present. Solitude is clarity; connection is clutter. But it is a tenuous insouciance, and news of Shaoai’s death, immediately followed by her ex-husband’s own terminal illness, sends her out of the shadows. “Sugar daddy” Boyang, who is the only one still living in Beijing, cared for Shaoai up until the end. He is the only one able to recognize the existence of the past, but even then, its recollection is lacking in nostalgia.

Chinese-American Li, who was born in Beijing and moved to the U.S. in 1996, is a MacArthur Fellow and was named one of the New Yorker’s top 20 writers under 40. Her new novel is penetrating and emotionally tasking, but there’s something compulsive about it—something that hooks a nerve and tugs again and again.

Kinder Than Solitude promises a mystery at its heart, but solving the crime is far from this story’s point. It’s about forcing memory to the surface, making it relevant and no longer an element of history as forgotten as an old Chinese dynasty. The greatest reprieve from all this repression and melancholy is the subdued prose, which unfolds the tale with immense grace and astonishing insight. This is an intense and elegant book, a dark tale with great reverence for the depth of the human heart.

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