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.