A Novel With a Secret at Its Center

Read Yiyun Li’s new book carefully, and you might glimpse its hidden message.

Photo of a girl on top of a drawing of a goose with a spiral illustration around it
Getty; The Atlantic

“You can slash a book,” says the narrator of Yiyun Li’s new novel, The Book of Goose. “There are different ways to measure depth, but not many readers measure a book’s depth with a knife, making a cut from the first page all the way down to the last. Why not, I wonder.” This feels like a challenge—to take a knife to this book, the seventh work of fiction from the Chinese-born author, cutting right through it to reveal what’s at its heart.

There are many ways of avoiding this challenge—of being distracted from Li’s real project—because of just how many elements she throws into this novel: its primary setting in a bleak, rural postwar France; its dip into the English boarding-school novel; a take on the well-worn trope of “female friendship”; the possibility of a queer relationship never made explicit; a commentary on the capriciousness of fame. Then there’s the too-easy comparison with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—a comparison that is really only helpful in orienting the reader toward the themes of desire and self-determination that they share.

But take the knife that Li offers, cut through all these outer trappings, and you find something much more mysterious. Though it is ostensibly a realist historical novel about the lives of women and girls in mid-century France, as its fablelike title indicates, The Book of Goose secretly dwells in the realm of fairy tale. Early on, its narrator, Agnès, declares, “Some people are born with a special kind of crystal instead of a heart … That crystal in place of a heart—it makes things happen. To others.” This magical image is Agnès’s way of describing the sway her friend Fabienne has over her, an insatiable urge to disturb the order of things that shapes the dynamic between the two girls. The dominant Fabienne issues commands that Agnès, seemingly in thrall to her friend’s superior imagination, is compelled to act out.

Li depicts Fabienne as almost superhuman in both marvelous and terrible ways. As a character, she gives Li a chance to explore the strange power of the myths we form about the people who shape us. Yet what really lies in Agnès’s own heart, and the novel’s, is only dimly revealed and much harder to bring to light. To do so is the real work—and pleasure—of reading this subtle and evasive book.

Agnès and Fabienne are 13 years old when we meet them, but they have already seen a lot: the slow death of Agnès’s brother, after his return from a German labor camp, and the fast, violent death of Fabienne’s sister, in childbirth. And they have little to look forward to beyond youth. The expectation is that, like Agnès’s older sisters, both girls will marry, have children, and remain in the small, stifling world of their village, Saint Rémy. Unlike most historical novels, the material world of this village is largely abstract; we don’t know what region of France it’s in or what kind of crops grow in the fields that surround it. All we know is that to Fabienne, it is not enough, and because Fabienne believes this, so does Agnès. Fabienne lives only to experiment and provoke, as Agnès puts it: “To peel a young tree’s bark to see how fast it would die. To pet a dog and then give it a kick, just to cherish the confused terror in the poor beast’s eyes.” The limits of the village and the life that awaits them are too restrictive for the monstrous urgency of Fabienne’s need to generate action.

It is Fabienne who decides one day that the two of them will play a “game” that extends beyond the boundaries of Saint Rémy: They are going to write and publish a book. Fabienne dictates the stories—a collection of brutal tales about dead children—and Agnès writes them down; as Agnès flatly observes, “I was not bad at penmanship. She was not bad at speaking like a dead woman.” This decision sets the novel’s dramatic plot in motion: At Fabienne’s request, the book is soon published under Agnès’s name, as she intuits that Agnès, more conventionally attractive and well mannered than she, will fare better in the public eye. She is right, and the publisher markets Agnès aggressively as a child prodigy in Paris and London. The success of the book eventually takes Agnès away from the village, while Fabienne remains behind. Now a celebrity author, Agnès is sent to a finishing school in Surrey, where the school’s headmistress hopes to claim the girl’s success as her own.

Yet the plot is, in some ways, a distraction. The book’s eventfulness is all on the surface, and the exciting things that happen to Agnès mean nothing to her. All the while she longs to return to Saint Rémy and to Fabienne, the one person in the world who is real to her, and with whom she feels real. This pull is at the book’s core: the effect of a friend whose presence feels so essential that her arrival was like a cosmological event that determined the color of the sky or the pull of gravity—there was nothing until she came. Li’s attention to the illogic of childhood friendships is evocative of the strangeness of that kind of relationship, which is not like a family bond, and not like romantic love. Children who experience this kind of affinity do not choose to become friends because of shared interests or convenience; rather, as Agnès believes, “childhood friendship, much more fatal, simply happens.”

These singularly compelling relationships can feel like fate itself. To Agnès, for instance, the circumstances of her life—who her family is, where she was born—seem arbitrary; her friendship with Fabienne, though, is “not an accident.” In Agnès’s retrospective telling, Fabienne is not a girl but a mythic figure, at once human and inhuman, whose presence is a clue to Li’s larger argument. We are all, whether we realize it or not, constantly engaged in the process of mythmaking in an attempt to understand the inexplicable—namely, the motivations and desires of those who are dear to us, and the curious grip they have over our emotions.

And yet, as Agnès herself admits, “what is myth but a veil arranged to cover what is hideous or tedious?” The more you cut into this book, the more the problem of the “hideous or tedious” becomes visible. Less than a year after Agnès leaves, she returns to the village and to Fabienne. The “game” of book writing and the adventure that followed is over. What had been briefly real in the game—the dramatic events of the book’s publication and its consequences that Fabienne, using Agnès as her puppet, “made happen”—is still not “life-real.” While Agnès hopes that the two of them might escape to Paris or even America, Fabienne’s imagination hits its hard limit. Now that adulthood is nearly upon them, the expectations of marriage and childbearing are inescapable. For all that it made life temporarily different, the book game has not fundamentally changed the workings of their world: “Can’t you see,” cries Fabienne, “that we’ve already lived past the best time of our lives?”

What Fabienne does not comprehend, however, is what we slowly come to understand about Agnès over the course of the novel. Outwardly guided by Fabienne, or her publisher and headmistress, or later, her husband, Agnès appears passive, while other characters appear to have agency and self-determination. But that seeming passivity is just a front. We realize as the story progresses that Agnès’s true source of autonomy lies in the epic figure of Fabienne that she has sketched for us—and taken liberties with. The deep sadness of the book is revealed in the partial traces we see of the real, human Fabienne behind the obscuring veil of Agnès’s myth.

As an adult, Agnès cultivates a flock of geese. “If my geese ever dream,” she speculates, “they alone know that the world will never be allowed even a glimpse of those dreams, and they alone know the world has no right to judge them.” Despite the fact that she is our first-person narrator, Agnès, too, knows that her inner dreamworld is hidden, and chooses to keep much of it that way. This is what makes The Book of Goose demand a careful, incisive reading. The pleasure lies in seeing, obliquely and incompletely, glimpses not of the stories she tells, but of the secrets that she keeps.