The myth of the author
The Book of Goose
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How do we distinguish a real identity from a false one? The fifth novel from the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li tackles this question through the story of two teenage misfits in 1950s France who play a literary trick on the world.
Inseparable 13-year-olds Fabienne (headstrong, abrasive) and Agnès (adaptable, unobtrusive) inhabit a private realm of games and fantasies. Then Fabienne writes a book “unflinchingly” portraying rural life and, with the aid of the village postmaster, they publish it under Agnès’s name to international acclaim. Fourteen years later, having put the Atlantic between herself and her past, Agnès learns of Fabienne’s death and decides to write a book (this novel) revealing the truth about her time as a “faux-prodigy”.
Li satirises the creation of an author’s myth (Agnès is marketed as a simple peasant girl), the machinery of book promotion and the veneration of young talent—how the press fawns, then tears people down. Fabienne is a ruthless puppet master, Agnès and the postmaster her collateral damage. Agnès is further exploited by the media-savvy headmistress of an English finishing school who offers her a scholarship in a social experiment that makes Agnès miserable.
At the novel’s core lies the intense relationship between the girls—one cruelly dominant, the other startlingly submissive. “I lived through her,” says Agnès. “I was a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade.” Agnès’s willing subjugation heightens the reader’s troubled response: is this psychological abuse, thwarted love affair, or both? So unswerving is Agnès’s devotion that she doesn’t resent -Fabienne for manipulating her into living a lie; this sometimes stretches credulity.
Nonetheless, this is a subtle, ingenious study of celebrity culture, class prejudice, unequal friendship and the search for authenticity, which deftly exposes the gap between appearances and reality.
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