While the circumstances in which Yiyun Li’s characters find themselves have much to do with the strictures and the simultaneously casual and calculated cruelties of an authoritarian regime, the feelings these men and women must endure — longing, regret, loneliness, the desperate desire to bridge the gap that divides them from others — will be familiar, perhaps all too familiar, to everyone, everywhere. Indeed, the damage inflicted on these hapless souls by their political history — a professor is made to clean toilets, a girl enamored of English literature is drafted into the army — begins to seem emblematic of the misfortunes and unjust turns of fate that are beyond human control, regardless of the economic system under which one happens to live.
What’s distinctive about Yiyun Li’s work is the contrast between its emotional intensity and its calm, measured tone, a literary voice that brings to mind Nabokov’s description of Chekhov’s narrative style: “The story is told in the most natural way possible . . . the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.” As in reading Chekhov, one is struck by how profoundly important the lives of ordinary people are made to seem, and by what a sizable chunk of existence — an entire life or several lives — has been compressed into a few pages.