The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

“Sometimes you hear people say so-and-so has lived well, and so-and-so has had a dull life. They are missing a key point when they say that. Any experience is experience, any life a life. A day in a cloister can be as dramatic and fatal as a day on a battlefield.”

There are books whose purpose is to provide an escape from the stress and mundanity of our reality, and there are books written to challenge us to delve deeper into our realities and get our hands a little dirty in the process. The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li  can be classified as the latter. 

Li is a Chinese-born author, both fascinating and impossible to pigeonhole, who brings depth to stories not often found on modern bookshelves. Although Li’s native language is Mandarin Chinese, she has chosen to write her novels in English, stating, “It’s about making every word a word … I can never get every word to align perfectly. I cannot get the sentence to say exactly what I mean. I like that tension between myself and the language.” This intentionality and strange playfulness sets her writing apart, subtly tickling the imaginative spaces of the brain to life in stories that, at first, appear to dwell in the realm of historical realism. 

Although disguised as a realist historical novel, The Book of Goose is, as its title suggests, more of a fable.

This sneaky undertone of a fairytale realm makes this novel such a pleasure to read and dissect. Somewhat elusive and challenging to get to the heart of, this novel is lovely in the way each reader will discover a different secret within the story Li has expertly transcribed. 

In The Book of Goose, we follow the lives of two young girls growing up in the rural village of Saint Rèmy, in post-war France, as a game they’ve created sets off a series of events forever changing their futures. Our narrator, Agnès, and her best friend, Fabienne, are only thirteen at the start of our story, yet they’ve already witnessed many horrors. From the slow death of Agnès’s brother after his return from a German labor camp to the fast and violent death of Fabienne’s sister in childbirth, the two friends are no strangers to the cruelties of their world. 

Agnès is a passive, conventionally pretty, and well educated girl while her friend, Fabienne is wild, odd looking, and has a vivid imagination. Fabienne’s insatiable urge to disturb the order and peace of things is in stark contrast to Agnès gentle demeanor. And yet, the two are inseparable. Much of The Book of Goose’s themes surround the effects of friendships like theirs, that feel so essential, they appear to be predestined, written in the stars. These friendships are not formed because of shared interests or family ties, but ultimately, as Agnès puts it, “Childhood friendships, much more fatal, simply happen.” Our two main characters, who love each other so intensely, feel more like two halves of the same individual. One representing the more adult, seemingly inauthentic, “face” of the pair, and the other representing the more genuine, courageous, and honest side. 

Along with the tragedies witnessed, the girls are well aware of the expectations put on them by their families and mid-century society, to marry, bear children, and remain in this small village for the rest of their lives. Fabienne strongly believes that this predestined future isn’t enough for them, and, as she goes along with anything her friend suggests, Agnès believes the same. So the “game” begins. 

Always the instigator, Fabienne declares they will write and publish a book.

Fabienne herself dictates the stories, all tales about dead children, as Agnès writes it all down. With the help of a widowed postmaster, the book is bought by a publisher and, at Fabienne’s request, is published under Agnès’ name alone. 

The success of the book quickly launches Agnès into literary stardom, making her up to be a child prodigy. Now an international celebrity, Agnès is sent to a finishing school in England, where the headmistress hopes to use her fame to her own benefit.

This seemingly exciting plot is, in some ways, a distraction.

The events that take place at the school, as well as throughout the remainder of the book, are all surface-level and mean nothing to our introspective narrator. All Agnès wants is to return to Saint Rèmy and to Fabienne, who is the only person firmly planted in Agnès’s reality. 

Agnès’s idea of Fabienne is one of the most interesting aspects of The Book of Goose.

To Agnès, Fabienne is not just a girl, but instead is a mythic figure, almost superhuman in both astounding and hideous ways. Through Agnès’s veiled view of her friend, we are faced with the fact that we are constantly mystifying or myth-making as we attempt to understand the many peculiar things in our realities—namely, the desires and actions of those we love, and the terrifying grip they have over our emotions. In Agnès words, “What is myth but a veil arranged to cover what is hideous or tedious?”

Less than a year after Agnès sets off for school, she returns to her small village and to Fabienne.

This “game” is over, along with the many new adventures it led to, but Agnès still dreams of escaping Saint Rèmy with her beloved friend to start a new life in Paris or even America. This is where Fabienne’s imagination reaches its limit. Adulthood has almost reached the pair, and the expectations are inescapable. Although the game was momentarily entertaining, in reality, it changed nothing. “Can’t you see,” cries Fabienne, “that we’ve already lived past the best time of our lives?”

At this point, it becomes obvious that although Agnès appears passive, outwardly guided by those around her, and other characters appear to have more agency, the passivity is a front. Agnès has created this epic figure out of Fabienne, taking many liberties. Upon rereading this story, traces of the real, human Fabienne can be found behind the myth dreamed up by our narrator. 

Talking about a flock of geese she has cultivated as an adult, Agnès states, “If my geese ever dream, they alone know that the world will never be allowed even a glimpse of those dreams, and they alone know the world has no right to judge them.” Despite being a first person narrator, much of Agnès’ inner world remains hidden. This is what makes The Book of Goose a singular reading experience. We covet these incomplete glimpses, not of the direct stories she tells, but of the secrets she’s keeping from us. 

I’m ashamed to say that The Book of Goose is the first work of fiction I’ve read from Yiyun Li, but it will not be my last.

This novel is a treasure in every sense of the word and I hope you dive into its depths very soon. I can’t wait to hear what you think. Order a copy now from Bookshop Benicia, or reserve your copy from our lovely library. 

“Happiness, I would tell her, is to spend every day without craning one’s neck to look forward to tomorrow, next month, next year, and without holding out one’s hands to stop every day from becoming yesterday.”

Spicy Peach Aperitif

Ingredients:

  • 2 peaches chopped
  • ¼ cup hot honey (Trader Joe’s)
  • ¾ oz Ritual aperitif (or aperitif of choice)
  • ¾ oz spicy peach purée
  • Sparkling water
  • Optional: Orange slice, peach slice, tajin

Preparation:

  1. Chop peaches and coat with hot honey.
  2. Cook on medium heat until the peaches are super soft.
  3. Blend.
  4. Rim your fanciest cocktail glass with tajin, using honey.
  5. Stir together Ritual aperitif and the peach purée, then pour into glass filled with ice.
  6. Top with sparkling water.