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.
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.
Mysterious, but it bears its mystery lightly, with Li’s understated style touching on large ideas ... The novel could be read as a reflection on the impossibility of the writer’s art—that continued resistance, always falling short, to the given categories of real and unreal. But it is also a comment on how easily the writer’s fabrications are familiarized, exploited, and misunderstood.
... 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.
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.
... haunting and strange ... This isn’t a victim’s story, nothing so straightforward – it’s something much more interesting and strange. The people who take Agnes up aren’t as dangerous as they think they are; these privileged manipulators exaggerate their own power. All the jeopardy in the novel comes out of the estrangement Fabienne and Agnès have chosen for themselves, carried along by their own invention and their adventure; or it comes from the intractable circumstances of their birth and history ... manifestly this isn’t realism: we’re not meant to succumb for a moment to its illusion. Li’s novel feels more like a fable, and so much fascinating speculation seems to be encoded opaquely in Agnès’s narration ... Out of the complex torture of cultural politics, Li has made her style her own.
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.
... sly, profound ... They’ve grown up together in the impoverished French village of Saint Rémy, whose mud and meadows, madmen and drunks anchor The Book of Goose, infusing its imagery and its aphoristic musings, even though Agnès narrates it from the vantage point of a very different life more than a decade on ... For all its surface lushness, this is a novel of meticulous philosophical inquiry, roaming from the nature of reality and the truth quotient of fact, memory and fiction to the instantaneousness of childhood friendship – so much more 'fatal', as Agnès puts it, than the endlessly crooned about love at first sight. There’s room, too, for a spiky, often droll critique of what it takes out of an author to be published and compelled to engage with the outside world ... a text resonant with echoes of stories as diverse as Cinderella and My Brilliant Friend, as well as authors including Elizabeth Strout and William Trevor ... Li, who writes in English and teaches at Princeton, grew up in China and spoke in a recent New York Times interview about discovering a gift for writing propaganda as a teenager, and her horror at finding she could move an audience to tears by channelling patriotic cliches. That experience surely fuels the thrilling complexity of The Book of Goose’s relationship with the literary impulse and its sometimes sullied motives, along with the demands placed on those presumed to have a facility for word ... It’s to Li’s credit that the structural cleverness of her seventh work of fiction doesn’t obscure its defining drama, the relationship between Agnès and Fabienne; instead a sublime closing passage draws it out into the open, allowing Agnès – who was always more amanuensis than prodigy – to sign her name to the 'real' story of the two of them, with all the possibilities and limitations that that word entails.
... wonderful ... quiet suspense ... The book is rich in aphorisms...These frequent observations, with a proverbial quality, enhance the fairy-tale feel of the work – it achieves both the stylised beauty of a traditional folk tale and the satisfying depth of realistic fiction. And it pulls the reader along ... as well as exploring obsessive friendship, Li considers the nature of creativity. Spare me, says you, but the book is anything but pretentious or pedantic ... That’s it. Claritas is what it has – luminosity, and mystery. Enthralling!
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.
I was truly unprepared for what a perverse marvel this book turned out to be. Like many character-driven novels, a quick run-down of the plot can only go so far as to prepare you for the trove of meaning contained in Yiyun Li’s latest story. The Book of Goose is a tremendous psychological excavation of obsessive female friendship, the act of creation and what it means to be at odds with the world. Destructive co-dependency coupled with the ending of their childhoods lead Li’s two main characters on an inevitable trajectory of fate and tragedy, and I could not look away. There is such a rich, propulsive poignancy to the prose that makes this novel feel like something only Li could write. It retains the dry wit that I so enjoyed in her 2019 novel, Where Reasons End, but offers a more satisfying, well-rounded story where a second read will be just as rewarding as the first ... Fans of Elena Ferrante and Ottessa Moshfegh will enjoy what may just be Yiyun Li’s best work yet.
There is a fairy-tale atmosphere, mystery as deep and dark as the soil, but also specific historical context ... There is no fat on The Book of Goose. Li weighs every word and, as well as Agnès’s philosophising ... Those who enjoy the beguiling fiction of Mieko Kawakami or Ottessa Moshfegh will be riveted, but there is also something of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye here, as Agnès tries to make sense of the eternal conflict between the intense feeling of childhood and the compromises that adulthood imposes ... Li’s novel is fired by her vivid imagination, and her singular perspective as a US-based Chinese author writing in English about a French woman who is narrating the story of her youth in English. Everything is conveyed through layers of translation, subjectivity and invention. The impact is profound.
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.
Lush and menacing ... The Book of Goose could be read as an elegy, an accusation, or a confession; a hushed queer love story or a piece of grave-cold vengeance. This evasiveness, present in all of Li’s work, is the source of this novel’s beguilement.
... masterfully explores the enduring power of friendship and the resilience that such a deep and abiding love can have on a life, long after the person who gives it is gone. A post-WWII novel that shares a sensibility with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and Vera Brittain’s famed Testament series of memoirs, the book is a sharp, incisive, modern look at a long-ago distressed world and the ways in which two girls made use of their natural caring and imagination to impact one of their lives forever. ... will give readers a unique experience. It is not a work to be rushed through; rather, it is to be savored and pored over, page by page. The confident stride of Li’s words is meant to resonate long past the story she tells in these pages, and it does so incredibly well.
Haunting ... Yi turns this already captivating real-life tale into a haunting story of co-dependence in postwar France ... A fascinating period piece in that Li manages to avoid the more obvious pitfalls of historical fiction, seemingly uninterested as she is in padding out the novel with period-specific detail. Instead, her attention is focused on the prickly relationship between her two central characters ... The Book of Goose itself is a spiky, scratchy, unsettling thing; and it’s all the more interesting and impressive for it. No sentimental tale of girlhood friendship, instead Li’s novel is deeply in tune with the complex perils and pleasures of a brutal, but sometimes beautiful world.
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.
The author isn’t as interested in fully developed characters as she is in the ontological questions her two young heroines explore through the 'games' they create for themselves ... The Book of Goose is not as intriguing as a narrative as it is as a vehicle for fundamental inquiries.
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.