Set amidst the China’s modernization in the mid ’60s, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” a book of short stories by Yiyun Li, delves into the Cultural Revolution and its impact on the widening generational rifts between young Chinese-Americans and more traditional elders in China.
In her debut, Li captures the exquisite human burdens and the consequences of misunderstandings between generations of families.
At the end of each story, Li doesn’t reconcile any problems among characters nor does she define any solutions for them.
Instead, she deftly weaves optimism into her resolutions, vouching for a character’s faith to overcome his reservations. In “Princess of Nebraska,” long lost love brings two characters together by bridging their pasts.
The author allows the reader to meditate on the essence of her characters while they confront various issues. We’re left craving more because the inconclusiveness of Li’s stories provides an outlet for introspection.
The plights of Li’s characters allow the stories to unfold more realistically, as intimately portrayed affairs. In “Love in a Marketplace,” a woman is forever changed by a broken promise, illustrating how a person’s struggles can influence fate.
In “Extra,” a jobless old lady is relocated at a school where she encounters an unwanted six-year-old boy. Both are outcasts in society, but discover love and hope in their friendship.
Li also explores the unpredictable nature of life, welcoming unpredictability and fostering ambiguous connections between her characters. Human emotions are explored through paradoxical feelings such as the airiness of existence coupled with the heaviness of struggles; Such feelings reveal the frailty of human emotions.
In “Immortality,” a man with a face like the dictator’s pretends to live like one but soon realizes how barren and fleeting life is.
Each story employs a multitude of Chinese idioms to develop its themes. While they might be hard for non-Chinese natives to decipher, they strengthen the narratives. They make for a more serious tone while giving the reader a glimpse of Chinese culture and values. The prose of the stories actually models Chinese conversation, contributing to its authenticity.
Li’s originality and talent as an author can be seen through her endless use of metaphors to reinforce her themes.
Events run parallel to each other, but all illustrate the same idea. For example, in “Son,” a man discusses the fate of someone else while unaware he is describing his own. This narrative device spans the scope of the book, and reflects not only the message of each story, but also the theme of collection of stories.
In the short story “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” Li writes “A foreign country gives one foreign thoughts.”
In the same light, Li’s book can surely give one “foreign thoughts” or a new perspective on Chinese culture, while touching on political, social and personal issues.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars