I can think of few novels as bleak or dispiriting as Yiyun Li’s 2009 debut, The Vagrants. Set in a Chinese industrial town in 1979, it opens with one woman’s death and closes with another. The pages in between are jammed with misery meted out by scalpel: treacherous friends, underfed children, craven officials, all have their turn upon the stage, while school choirs sing unfalteringly in praise of the communist party.
Her latest book, Must I Go, is more cheerful, if only by a whisker. It’s the first time Li has set a novel squarely in her adopted America, with a faded Californian babe as its heroine. Lilia Liska is 81 and thrice widowed. She is spending her final years in a retirement village that she tolerates. When more sentimental residents start a memoir-writing course, Lilia goes it alone and decides to compose a record of her life for the benefit of her descendants.
But she is no ordinary pensioner, and her trip down memory lane soon becomes ‘more like a wild hike’ than a gentle stroll, as she discovers. Fragments of her memoir are arranged around extracts from a former lover’s diary that she has assiduously tracked down. Roland Bouley blew into Lilia’s life when she was a teenager, knocked her up and vanished, none the wiser. Nearly 30 years later, Lucy, their wild and beautiful daughter, took her own life, without her father ever having known of her existence. Decades on, Lilia is still dazed by this most private of tragedies. After Lucy’s suicide, she writes: ‘Nothing felt like a weight to me... Everything was light. Featherweight.’ Li explored similar territory in her searing 2017 memoir, in which she wrote movingly of her own depression and suicide attempts, dedicating the book to her son who died by his own hand at 16.
Li’s prose in Must I Go is hard to fault. The grain of every sentence feels measured, each word jealously dispensed. Nonetheless, the novel can be hard going. Not all readers will have the patience to piece together the shards of Lilia’s life in the hope that they will form a coherent whole. The major problem with the book is that while Lilia is good company — spiky, morbid, dispassionate, droll — her former flame, whose diaries must be trawled through, is far less interesting. In the end, it’s a hurdle the novel never quite clears.