“Kinder Than Solitude,” the most recent work from Yiyun Li, is a touching novel about a tragic event and its repercussions. Set in Beijing in the 1980s, Moyan, Ruyu, and Boyang are average fifteen-year-olds, enjoying bike trips to the Western Sea, music rehearsals, and time with family, when one of their friends is mysteriously (accidentally?) poisoned. Twenty years later, the three friends are estranged and living in different parts of the world: Moyan and Ruyu in the United States and Boyang in China. While they try to move on with their lives, all three face difficultly connecting with others and leaving the past behind them. As a result, they each turn to a life of solitude.
Unsurprisingly, a book about solitude is not an action-packed read, nor should it be. Kinder Than Solitude is a meditative book in the tradition of Marilynne Robinson: it is a slowly paced work filled with beautiful, carefully written prose. Li goes deep into the being of each character, providing insight on how Ruyu’s life circumstances made her a cold and stone-faced child; and, more heartbreakingly, what made a cheerful, kindhearted child like Moyan turn into a isolated, lonesome adult.
There is also the matter of the poisoning, which looms large over the entire novel. While readers have closure on this event by the novel’s end, Li is far more concerned with examining the motives – and hearts – of her characters than with writing active scenes. This can make for some dense but rewarding passages, such as when the narrator reflects on Moran’s chosen life in America:
“The crowdedness of family life and the faithfulness of solitude – both brave decisions, or both decisions of cowardice – make little dent, in the end, on the profound and perplexing loneliness in which every human heart dwells.”
Beautifully written, “Kinder Than Solitude” is a powerful examination of three character’s chosen journey into solitude and the struggles – and joys – that come when emerging from it.