Bored people are dangerous people. The complicity of the Marquis de Mertueil in dangerous relationships to UV tail orange orange, Literature is full of them, back to the beginning. Søren Kierkegaard wrote that boredom is the root of all evil. “The gods were fed up. So they created humans.”
Bored teens are especially dangerous because they experience forces they barely understand: think Briony Tallis in expiation, which causes chaos by blurring reality with its own imaginations. The same is true of Fabien and Anias, two 13-year-old rural children living in post-WWII France, who are at the heart of Yiyun Li’s new and bizarre historical novel. With the help of a recently widowed village postmaster, the two teens write a book featuring harrowing pictures of village life: a man mates with a cow; another cuts off the heads of chickens to show the children how the animals dance; A mother strangles her newborn and leaves him in a pig’s trough. The rebellious and uneducated Fabian dictates the stories; Agnes negativity obliges them to paper. But Fabien insists that only one of them will have his name on the cover.
[See also: Fate and freedom in Elena Ferrante]
“Fabien was bored. So was I,” says the narrator Agnes. “I was not afraid of boredom, but I was afraid that if I was defeated by boredom, something mighty would happen, something mortal, something that would change her and I forever. I would do anything you asked me to do, just so you find life interesting.”
Like Emma Bovary, a bored housewife, the girls live in the French countryside – in a place called Saint-Remy. This may or may not be Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the city near Marseille in southern France, never spelled out, but it looks like a bleak village out of a fairy tale. Given that Yiyun was inspired by the true story of a child novelist who grew up on a pig farm (some novels say central France, others in the West), she probably had a less poetic setting in mind.
Yiyun was inspired by the tale of Berthe Grimault, who was hailed in the late 1950s as a child prodigy after publishing a book called clown boo, who described a degraded clan of peasants. One review from 1958 called it a “creeping pile of manure for a novel” while praising its “filthy innocence”. Yiyun finds personal papers that reveal that Grimault has been sent to an English language school where the headmistress discovers that the girl is not only ugly but also illiterate. Was the novel a hoax? There were suggestions that Grimault was aided by the village postmaster, which captured Yiyun’s imagination and inspired this fictional version.
It marks an interesting turn for Yiyun, whose previous four books were directly inspired by her own life. Her first novels are set against the gray cultural landscape of communist China, where she was born (moving to the United States in her twenties). In 2012, she had a nervous breakdown, and when she returned to writing, she embraced the first person and began writing about herself. She has a profound impact on the 2019 novel, Where the reasons endon the suicide of her 16-year-old son in 2017.
Here she crosses her comfort zone into the gloomy mid-century of France and you can feel the stretch. There are deep descriptions of blood, filth, and worms, but at times Yiyun struggles to flesh out her unsettling account of manipulation, exploitation, and co-dependence. There are some memorable lines – “We were the perfect pair, one looking for all that the other can experience” – that exemplify the girls’ intense friendship, but overall, Yiyun relies too much on phrases rather than immersion in narrative.
Agnes, who narrates the novel, is now an adult living in Pennsylvania with her American husband. When she learned that Fabian died in childbirth at the age of 27, many years after they had lost contact, she realized that she was now free to write her own version of how she became a child prodigy. Looking back at her youth, she recalls the village in which she and her “rotten and violent” friend grew up on “the stench and filth, the animals running in a mess, and people crazier than animals.” Both lost family members. Agnes’ brother died of tuberculosis, which he had brought from a German POW camp. Meanwhile, Fabien was left alone with her drunk father, after her mother and older sister died.
So she and Fabian created a world of their own, where nonsense and reality have equal weight. Two friends know and complement each other, two halves of a whole. “Half” is the word that appears throughout the novel: “Half of this story is for her, but she is not here to tell me what I missed.”
Agnes remembers how everyone else in their lives seemed marginal to their existence, even the adults who enjoyed being manipulated – and who seemed equally bored and disappointed. The grieving postmaster, M. Defoe, is intrigued by their bleak notebook and agrees to help turn it into a book, and pass it on to a publisher in Paris—though his motives for getting close to Fabien are clearly undesirable.
But before that, Fabien insists that Agnes pretend to be the sole author of their book, which leads her friend to the French newspapers, which tout her as a teenage prodigy. When she becomes a short literary sensation, she is offered (like the real-life Berthe Grimault) a scholarship at a finishing school in the English home counties, which is run by an ambitious woman named Mrs. Townsend. She had rather unrealistic expectations of turning Agnes “from pigherd into a novice”, turning her away from the ramshackle Fabienne and placing her among the “beautiful, cultured girls” who “been like wonderful seashells”.
However, it turns out that the controlling director has her own scheme – she wants to co-write Agnes’ next book. In one of the novel’s most powerful passages, the photographer who captures Agnes’ journey to fame warns her about the motives of the adults around her. “These people—I include myself in this category—we are like bees. You are not the only flower to us. How long can a flower remain in bloom?” To which Agnes wisely answered: “What should I do to become a bee instead of staying flower?”
Elsewhere, the book relies on more heavy imagery (oranges, knives, metal, pigs) to convey the relationship dynamics in the story, especially between girls. But one of the main problems with goose book is that comparisons with the Elena Ferrante quartet cannot be avoided. I can’t remember a recent novel that was clearly in the shadow of another. It is strange how close the characters of Agnès and Fabienne are to the map of Lenu and Lila, one of them receives an education and the other stays behind.
None of the authors shy away from the more sinister aspects of childhood and poverty, but where Ferranti is fiery and emotional, Yiyun is colder and more distant. You might think Yiyun’s quirkiness and sensitivity would be enough to separate her creativity from the world of Ferrante, but the story never gains momentum and the prose fails to cast the right spell. “We’re real now, not real in the game,” Fabien says near the end, one of many seemingly unreal observations of a teen in the 1950s. There is a lot of promise in this story – but it should be considered a missed opportunity.
by Yiyun Li
Fourth, 368pp, £14.99
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