Teenage friendship is the main subject of this wonderful novel. Fabienne and Agnès seem at first glance to be two sides of the same coin. Like Edna O’Brien’s Baba and Cait, they are country girls, Fabienne an ugly and bold genius, Agnès a pretty and gentle goose. They live in a dirty village, all smelly pigs and dirty chickens, just after World War II. It’s in France, but Yiyun Li’s stripped-down prose gives everything a universal character. Time and place certainly play a role, but the village could be anywhere. The focus is entirely on Agnès, the narrator, and Fabienne, and a few characters who play a significant role in their story.
And what a story! Fabienne tells crazy and cruel stories. Agnès, whose calligraphy is neat, is his amanuensis. With the help of an eccentric neighbor, the stories get published. Agnès becomes a famous author, a child prodigy, adored in Paris, introduced to adults, perfumed baths and chic clothes. Celebrity, and those who want to exploit her, separate her from her muse, from her very imagination: Fabienne. What happens next infuses the novel with quiet suspense.
The book is rich in aphorisms. “Sad people don’t often know they’re sad. and bored.” “Some people are born with a special type of crystal instead of a heart.” These frequent observations, of a proverbial quality, heighten the fairy-tale feel of the work – it achieves both the stylized beauty of a traditional folktale and the satisfying depth of realistic fiction. And that engages the reader. Who really makes the books, Fabienne or Agnès? In addition to exploring obsessive friendship, Li considers the nature of creativity. Spare me, you say, but the book is anything but pretentious or pedantic. Perhaps he is best described by Mrs. Townsend, one of the story’s witches, who, like most characters, has a knack for uttering the pithy phrase: “There are many wild moments in the book , but your writing has a special kind of clarity. Like a perfect piece in C major on the piano. That’s it. Claritas is what it has – luminosity and mystery. Captivating!
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a writer. His latest collection of stories is Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff, 2020)