Yiyun Li is a Chinese-born writer who now lives in the United States where she is a Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University. The Book of Goose is Yiyun Li’s sixth novel. It is set in rural France and is an intriguing tale of the friendship between two teenage girls Agnes and Fabienne, who while inseparable are polar opposites in terms of character and temperament.
The Book of Goose is narrated by Agnes, who reflects on her once intimate relationship with Fabienne from afar having left France to live in Pennsylvania with her husband. This sense of distance from the events portrayed gives the book a slightly whimsical tone and serves to make Agnes’s voice both reflective and authoritative as illustrated by this extract from the beginning of Chapter Two.
“My name is Agnes, but that is not important… The name you should pay attention to in this story is Fabienne. Fabienne is not an orange or a knife or a singer of lullabies, but she can make herself into any one of those things.”
The book starts with Agnes receiving a letter from her mother containing the news that her old friend Fabienne has died at childbirth. From there the narrative quickly moves back in time to the village of St Reme in rural France, and the intertwined lives and private world of Agnes and Fabienne. The girls are 14 years old. Fabienne works looking after her family’s cows and goats, while Agnes is still at school where she is a good but not outstanding student. Of the two Fabienne is the leader and Agnes the willing acolyte. They amuse themselves playing imaginative games in the cemetery and countryside around their village.
One day Fabienne decides it would be fun to write a book and she coerces Agnes to transcribe a number of macabre stories which she dictates to her. Fabienne also invites the local postmaster, Monsieur Devaux, who has written poetry and a number of unpublished plays to assist her and Agnes polish their stories. M Devaux agrees, despite some initial reservations, and assists the girls shape the stories into their final form.
With M Devaux’s help the girls find a potential publisher and Agnes goes to Paris to meet him and for the first time experiences the world beyond St Reme. The girls’ book is published as a result Agnes and Fabienne’s lives go in completely different directions. Agnes to a finishing school in England while Fabienne remains in St Reme. However, even as they move apart Agnes feels Fabienne’s presence subtly shaping her thoughts and actions.
The Book of Goose an engrossing read. Its language is deceptively simple and the description of the life of two teenage girl friends in rural France in the 1950s has echoes of Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”. While the books insights into the nature of teenage friendship, and how a dominant personality can manipulate another’s life even after they have parted company, ring strangely true.
I’ll leave the last word to Agnes.
“But were we not in a sense two blind girls? One would walk everywhere as though not a single mine were buried in the field. The other would not find the courage to take a step in the field because the whole world was a minefield.