Review by Susan Osborne
Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose is the story of an obsessive friendship between two young girls in 1950s rural France, one of whom will briefly find fame as a literary prodigy.
When Agnés learns of Fabienne’s death, she sets about telling the story of their friendship forged in a backwoods hamlet. By thirteen, Fabienne had long since given up school, tending her drunken, widowed father’s livestock. Agnés was more fortunate, although there was little in the way of affection from parents taken up with a son deeply damaged by war. Agnés and Fabienne are inseparable but it’s Fabienne that leads the way, coming up with increasingly risky games to ward of the grim reality of their lives, constantly putting Agnés down who continues to adore her. One day, she tells Agnés they’re going to inveigle the recently widowed postman into helping them write a book: Fabienne will provide the stories, Agnés will write them down and M. Devaux will polish them. So successful is this scheme that the macabre collection of stories submitted for publication is published under Agnés’ name at Fabienne’s insistence. Agnés is feted by a Parisian society astonished at this peasant girl’s literary prowess, while Fabienne remains in Saint Rêmy. When Agnés is offered a place in an English girls’ finishing school, Fabienne urges her on. On her return, homesick for Fabienne, a chasm has opened up. Fabienne forces Agnés to face the reality that lies ahead rather than the fantasy of a life spent together.
She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will.
Li tells the story of this intense friendship through Agnés’ voice as she looks back at a relationship that led her down a path that seems almost fantastical for a peasant girl. Fabienne is expertly drawn; fearless, clever and more aware of the world and the limitations it imposes than her naïve friend, thrust into the limelight at Fabienne’s insistence, who idolises her. Fabienne might seem incapable of expressing love and affection, but she ensures an escape for Agnés from the grinding poverty and narrow horizons of their childhood with brilliant ingenuity. The storytelling is immersive, Li’s writing incisive but it’s the characterisation that really impresses.
From Susan Osborne A Life in Books. Never, ever leave home without a book
Yiyun Li, The Book of Goose (4th Estate paperback, 2023). 978-0008531850, 348 pp..
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