Book review: Must I Go, by Yiyun Li

Confronting loss of a child is a personal experience requiring the right words, writes David Robinson

Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li

The octogenarians in the Californian care home are taking a class on memoir writing, but peppery, sardonic, grief-hardened 81-year-old Lilia can’t be bothered. It’s just “an incubator for eggs that will never hatch”, she says. Life isn’t a jigsaw puzzle, or at least not one with pieces that fit.

Take her daughter Lucy, who killed herself when she was 27. If Lilia were to write about Lucy, she thinks, her words would be even deader than she is. “If someone broke your heart, you could still gather the pieces and glue them back, or leave them scattered around, evidence of what was once your heart. But Lucy’s trick was to make the heart disappear.”

It is hard, if not impossible, to separate the central tragedy of Lilia’s life – losing her daughter at the age of 44 – from the one Chinese-American literary wunderkind Yiyun Li has already faced.

She was the same age, and writing this very novel in 2017, when her 16-year-old son killed himself. Her book, Where Reasons End, written straight afterwards, addressed some of the same issues. Can words ever hold us together and help us survive? Or do they force us towards trite explanations that diminish the suicide itself? And whether with or without words, why should we carry on living?

Where Reasons End was a completely abstract novel of disembodied dialogue between mother and child; by contrast, Must I Go goes almost to the other multi-storied, heavily detailed extreme. In it, Lilia is not only looking back on her own life (three husbands, five children, 17 grandchildren) but also annotating the published diary of Lucy’s father Roland, a womanising narcissist whom she only met four times, the second occasion both losing her virginity to him and becoming pregnant aged 16. Rather than write her own memoir, for two-thirds of the book she provides Lucy’s daughter and granddaughter with a spiky commentary on half a century of Roland’s eminently forgettable life.

The novel doesn’t quite work because Ronald’s intimate journal is, like Lilia’s inner monologues, too heavily aphoristic, but one senses what Li is trying to do. Roland’s life has already been heavily edited, with vast chunks of it lost. Over the years, his dreams deflate or start to look ridiculous. But he’s there not just as Lucy’s father (they didn’t know each other) but to provide distance and context, and to be retrospectively argued with, just as Lilia will always want to do with Lucy. Because as long as she can summon them up in words, there might be some kind of afterlife, however hopeless, in the incubator yet.

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Must I Go, By Yiyun Li, Hamish Hamilton, 348pp, £16.99. Yiyun Li is appearing online at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 24 August

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