Yiyun Li is a marvel. Born in Beijing in 1972, she was trained as an immunologist, came to the States to study medicine in 1996, then switched to the Iowa Writers Workshop for an MFA. Her first collection, 2005's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the PEN/Hemingway and Frank O'Connor International Short Story awards. She followed that with a well-received novel, 2009's The Vagrants.
Although Li is young — she was cited as a writing talent to watch on the New Yorker's recently published "20 Under 40" list — the stories in her masterful new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, often focus with great empathy on older generations who survived the chaos and personal disruptions of the Cultural Revolution.
In "Kindness," the novella that leads off the collection, Li balances three storylines: the narrator's upbringing in Beijing, as a girl; her compulsory year serving in the Chinese army; and flashbacks about her parents, whose secrets underscore the solitary life she has led. "Kindness" was inspired by a William Trevor short story, which gives a hint to Li's sensibilities. Like Trevor, the Irish master of the short story form, she is a miniaturist, tending toward restraint in her clear-eyed explorations of loneliness and the disappointments of those with modest expectations.
Quite a few of the stories play upon contemporary issues, including the changes that come with economic swings, and technological breakthroughs that resonate here as well as in China. A real estate boom in the wake of the legalization of private-owned housing is the foundation beneath an unusual love story, "Number Three, Garden Road." (The title is an address in Beijing.)
In the title story, a woman plays matchmaker for her 44-year-old son, encouraging a marriage with Siyu, 38, who has been her own frequent companion. It's an invitation Siyu thinks of as "an unexpected gift from a stingy life."
In "House Fire," a group of women in their 50s and 60s works as private investigators, tracking down husbands who cheat on their wives. The six are flummoxed when confronted by their first male client, a man who believes his father is having an affair with his wife. One of them, Mrs. Mo, recalls her own surprise when she discovered her husband's love affair of two decades with another man. "People were easily deceived by all kinds of facades," Li writes.
In "The Proprietress," a Shanghai reporter arrives in a village to interview a woman who has petitioned the court in an unusual rights case, hoping to have a child by her husband, who is being executed for murder.
"Prison" revolves around a grief-stricken couple whose only daughter, a 16-year-old who loves Emily Dickinson and wants to go to Harvard, has been killed in a car accident. They have sacrificed their careers — he was a doctor, she an editor — to come to the U.S. so Jade could get a better education. When they return to China and, with the help of a surrogate mother, seek to replace their lost child, the stakes shift drastically.
Li's insights into Chinese culture make her stories fascinating reading. But the greatest pleasure comes from the admirable elegance of her work. Her writing is lyrical, circular and finely etched, with an emotional impact that both satisfies and surprises.