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 ... All fiction is a kind of hoax in that it spins a delusion, inciting genuine feelings with invented characters and situations. The most propulsively entertaining of Li’s novels, The Book of Goose is an existential fable that illuminates the tangle of motives behind our writing of stories: to apprehend and avenge the truth of our own being, to make people know what it feels like to be us, to memorialize the people we keep alive in the provincial villages of our hearts. But it’s the motives behind our impulse to read fiction, and why we enter this delusion so eagerly, that occupied me through Li’s novel: the desire to suspend life in order to return to it more specifically and more vividly known to ourselves — and perhaps in order to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, in our own consequence.
Eerie and intimate ... Though the literary ruse drives its plot, "The Book of Goose" is mainly concerned with the lack of personal agency afforded to two very different girls — and how this shapes their destinies. Both want more than their village can offer, but until they write their book, only Fabienne has some power in her dealings with adults — because she scares them. When their book's success gives Agnès a measure of control over her future, the friendship takes a stark turn. Not since John Knowles' A Separate Peace has a novel wrung such drama from two teens standing face to face on a tree branch ... In prose shorn of unnecessary modifiers and frills of any kind, Li capably depicts the way a strong-willed sadist can browbeat a peer into subservience.
... take the knife that Li offers, cut through all these outer trappings, and you find something much more mysterious. Though it is ostensibly a realist historical novel about the lives of women and girls in mid-century France, as its fablelike title indicates, The Book of Goose secretly dwells in the realm of fairy tale ... Li depicts Fabienne as almost superhuman in both marvelous and terrible ways. As a character, she gives Li a chance to explore the strange power of the myths we form about the people who shape us. Yet what really lies in Agnès’s own heart, and the novel’s, is only dimly revealed and much harder to bring to light. To do so is the real work—and pleasure—of reading this subtle and evasive book ... the plot is, in some ways, a distraction. The book’s eventfulness is all on the surface, and the exciting things that happen to Agnès mean nothing to her. All the while she longs to return to Saint Rémy and to Fabienne, the one person in the world who is real to her, and with whom she feels real. This pull is at the book’s core: the effect of a friend whose presence feels so essential that her arrival was like a cosmological event that determined the color of the sky or the pull of gravity—there was nothing until she came. Li’s attention to the illogic of childhood friendships is evocative of the strangeness of that kind of relationship, which is not like a family bond, and not like romantic love ... In Agnès’s retrospective telling, Fabienne is not a girl but a mythic figure, at once human and inhuman, whose presence is a clue to Li’s larger argument. We are all, whether we realize it or not, constantly engaged in the process of mythmaking in an attempt to understand the inexplicable—namely, the motivations and desires of those who are dear to us, and the curious grip they have over our emotions ... The more you cut into this book, the more the problem of the 'hideous or tedious' becomes visible ... This is what makes The Book of Goose demand a careful, incisive reading. The pleasure lies in seeing, obliquely and incompletely, glimpses not of the stories she tells, but of the secrets that she keeps.
Li’s prose is as contained as it is raw when it cannot resolve the question that Agnes keeps stumbling upon: which of these games, these lives and relationships, are real, and is there a difference between 'game-real and life-real'? In so far as this is a novel about literature, one may say that a real writer is as much an identity as it is a character threatening to organize the lives of people; as a novel about two friends, drawn to each other as much as they are betrayed by each other, the first inscription is what kills and births both realism and reality ... a taut landscape built of all literature’s attachments, manipulations, displacements, anxieties, and escapes. It is the labored breadth of an economy that is resplendently libidinal and compelling—the mark of an experienced writer’s rigorous later work.
Composed in Li’s crystalline, unhurried prose, this world-sweeping tale — which has the texture and atmosphere of a fable — begins in, of all possible places, Lancaster, Pennsylvania ... In excavating the past, Agnès runs up against some questions so moss-covered that to even raise them here feels trite. But they have an urgent contemporary relevance, so here goes: Who has the right to tell a story? Can a narrative have a definite endpoint? How can we find happiness in difficult times? ... Li has again transfigured her personal tragedies into a piercing work of art. And while her characters, like the rest of us, can only poke around the edges of these unanswerable questions, there are, as in life, occasional moments of grace and clarity, when the fog vanishes and the answers appear.
Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls ... an elegant and disturbing novel about exploitation and acquiescence, notoriety and obscurity, and whether you choose your life or are chosen by it. Through her characters, Li studies the sway of manipulation, like the power-shifting game of rock-paper-scissors—a motif which frequently pops up throughout the novel. And though Agnes never stops longing for the friend whose brilliance provided her life with a sense of wholeness, the reader might be excused for believing that it was Agnes’ game to win all along.
This is a novel of deceptions and cruelty. Agnès is a ‘faux prodigy’, her ‘big dreams’ can never materialise and her life is stalked by tragedy. But within this sombre mood is something brilliant. With characteristic poise, Li depicts the intricacies of ordinary lives: childhood friendship, growing up, and existences as slow as the passively ‘floating’ geese Agnès watches. ‘Any experience is experience, any life a life’, writes Li. When it’s this well told, it’s impossible not to agree.
Li does an incandescent job of making this relationship vividly real, giving it the weight and impact it deserves ... Somehow Agnes cheats this fate once she’s discovered as an author, but that doesn’t seem to be what really matters in the book, either. The focus remains squarely on Fabienne’s power over Agnes, even across an ocean, how Agnes continues to define herself and orient herself in relation to her powerful friend. And the book we are reading, the one Agnes is writing, is ultimately a book of longing for an absent friend, one who still remains present deep within Agnes.
This is a shimmering, unsettling tale of exploitation and manipulation, of children at the hands of adults and of adults at the hands of children, and with the art of novel writing itself presented as perhaps the most manipulative of all.
Thematically, Li’s novel shares similarities with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, depicting an intense friendship between intelligent, impoverished girls and what happens when one has opportunities to broaden her scope. However, this latest from MacArthur fellow Li is more tightly focused, and the nature of the relationship between the two girls differs in some striking ways from Ferrante’s work ... Li’s understated prose belies the intensity of the emotions being depicted, and the story takes many unpredictable turns. Knowing only that the adult Agnes married an American, lives in the United States, and keeps geese, readers don’t learn the meaning of the title until the novel’s end. Highly recommended.
Li’s measured and exquisite delivery of Agnès’ revelations conveys the balance and rebalance of the girls’ relationship over time but also illuminates the motivations of writers (fame, revenge, escape) and how power within a relationship mutates and exploits. The combination the girls bring to their intimate relationship and endeavors (one seeking to experience things she could not achieve alone, the other providing the experiences) leads Agnès first to believe they were two halves of a whole. Knives, minerals, oranges, and the game of Rock Paper Scissors sneak into Agnès’ narrative as she relates the trajectory of a once-unbreakable union. The relative hardness of those substances is a clue to understanding it all ... Stunners: Li’s memorable duo, their lives, their losses.
... intriguing ... Bringing to mind Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, by way of Anita Brookner’s quietly dramatic prose, this makes for a powerful Cinderella fable with memorable characters. It’s an accomplished new turn for Li.