Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder than Solitude is an extremely powerful and unsentimental novel.

The book opens with the death of Shaoai, a woman left mentally damaged due to being poisoned in her youth. How she was poisoned and whether she was murdered form the pivot around which the protagonists’ lives unfold.

Around the time of the poisoning, Shaoai lived in the same complex in Beijing as Moran and Boyang. Childhood friends, almost brother and sister in Boyang’s eyes, Moran and Boyang imagine knowing one another always. They look up to their neighbour Shaoai, a subversive university student. Then Ruyu arrives.

Ruyu is an orphan sent by her guardians, her grandaunts, to Beijing to be educated. She is sent to live with Shaoai and her family. She has been taught to see herself as chosen by God, though for what no one seems to have made clear. This believed special status makes Ruyu emotionally distant and judgmental. Totally different to warm-hearted Moran, Ruyu is also attractive and this cool beauty turns boys’ heads. Boyang is no exception.

The poisoning and the events surrounding it create an intimacy of absence in Moran, Boyang, Ruyu and even, in some ways, Shaoai, whose vibrant personality and intelligence have been stripped from her. Though the mystery of the poisoning drives the plot, resolution comes not from fact but from exposure. When we find the answers we realise other questions were really more pertinent. It is through our connections with others that life takes on meaning.

This makes it sound as if the story has a neat, comedic ending. It doesn’t. Moran, Boyang, Ruyu and other characters we meet along the way are left mid-journey, potentially learning from the past or possibly repeating the same mistakes. Though this may seem underwhelming, it feels incredibly brave, naked almost.

Given how much I disliked Ruyu as a child and an adult – and we hear Moran and Boyang’s old and young voices too – Kinder than Solitude is painfully compelling. The agony of choosing to step away rather than confront moves through these characters lives in direct challenge to Shaoai’s outspoken anti-socialist, sexually liberated rebellion and this is where the individual and political link arms and make faces at the poverty of apathy. I leave it up to you to read the novel and decide what is kinder than solitude.

Next week, I’m reading The Humans by Matt Haig followed by Marilyn Robinson’s Lila, which is on the long list for this year’s Booker.