Novel Approach: Yiyun Li’s novel ‘Must I Go’ meditates on grief and memory
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” —Rumi
Grief is an emotion that never truly leaves a person, rather like waves along a bit of glass, the edges are worn and the shattered piece becomes something new, like sea glass littered along a shoreline. Our latest read takes us to California where a three time widow reflects on her life while reading another’s journal.
Must I Go by Yiyun Li
With old age firmly cloaked around her neck, Lilia is not bothered by her forward march towards death, instead she spends most of her time pouring over the journals of a man who was once her lover. When Lilia knew Roland they had a brief but lasting affair that altered the trajectory of Lilia’s life. However it’s not the few dalliances with him that she spends her time thinking about, but how Roland somehow had an influence on the daughter he never knew they shared from afar. As Lilia goes back and begins to annotate Roland’s journal with snippets about her own thoughts and life, she can’t seem to stop ruminating on the death of her daughter Lucy, and how Lucy’s life is what gave Roland any significance to Lilia. As she annotates the journal for her grandaughter Katherine, Lucy’s daughter, she reveals herself to be more than the tough woman she has shown her family.
“Must I Go” by Yiyun Li is an unflinching examination of grief and the questions we ask ourselves about life and how we live it. Through Lilia’s practical eyes readers might find it surprising to see how the no-nonsense narrator has had a rich interior life of thinking about a former flame’s life while busily raising her children and grandchild and caring for her rotation of husbands. While Lilia presents herself as an unsentimental figure, the time she takes to annotate a dead man’s story reveals more about her grief over Lucy than her words could ever convey. Li’s novel jumps from Lilia’s life in the retirement home to her past and back to Roland’s journals with an effortless ease that lulls readers into the translucent bond that tethers Lilia to Roland after decades of silence.
From the book jacket…
Lilia Liska has shrewdly outlived three husbands, raised five children, and seen the arrival of seventeen grandchildren. Now she has turned her keen attention to the diary of a long-forgotten man named Roland Bouley, with whom she once had a fleeting affair.
Increasingly obsessed with Roland’s intimate history, Lilia begins to annotate the diary with her own rather different version of events, revealing the surprising, long-held secrets of her past. She returns inexorably to the memory of her daughter Lucy. This is a novel about life in all its messy glory, and of a life lived, by the extraordinary Lilia, absolutely on its own terms. With great candor and insight, Yiyun Li navigates the twin poles of grief and resilience, loss and rebirth, that compass a human heart.
If you enjoy…
Readers who find themselves intrigued by Lilia’s ruminations on Roland’s life might also enjoy J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel “Friends and Strangers.” The novel follows a new mom and a college senior who form an unlikely friendship when the mom finds herself in need of a nanny.