The fact that Yiyun Li was only 33 when she published this dazzling collection of stories is annoying; the fact that she only began writing in English six years before is downright maddening. When you take on William Trevor you really need to know your stuff, and this lady has got some serious game.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, her debut and also winner of the Guardian First Book Award, is an extraordinary jewel box of a collection of stories about modern China, a China undergoing tremendous change, confronting its complex history of suppression and guilt. The stories take us from Beijing to Chicago to remote mountain towns peopled by beautifully human characters, struggling with questions of identity, faith and voice as they navigate the complicated landscape of the human condition. In 'Immortality' a man with a striking resemblance to the dictator discovers the key to a second life; in 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers' a father struggles to understand his daughter, now living a lifetime away in America; in 'Extra' an elderly woman befriends a young boy who has become an outcast in one of China's new private schools. Knowing literally nothing about this China I was utterly captivated by Li's confidence, her lyricism, her old-fashioned ability to tell a story. By turns horrifying and breathtaking, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers brought to vivid life a country as distant and bewildering to me as the dark side of the moon.