A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a short story collection by rising author Yiyun Li, paints a portrait of modern-day China, a country struggling to reconcile its tremendous past with the throbbing beat of the present. This struggle is illustrated in the intimate details we read about the everyday Chinese men and women who fill Li's stories: people who try to make the most of their lives despite loss, hardship, and a past in which they lived through the glory, pain, and eventual fading of communism. Some, like the gay character Han of "Son" and the recently divorced protagonist of the title story, have emigrated to America to find love and opportunity in a new land, to varying degrees of success. Others, like the old woman of the collection's first story, "Extra," are trying to find their place in the world after the fall of a familiar economic-political system places them in a new economic reality, leaving them confused and rootless. Li's stories are firmly planted in the China of the twenty-first century, but it's evident that tradition and the past exert a fierce influence on how these characters live their lives. A handful of themes--marriage, filial duty, socioeconomic ambition, among them--appear and reappear throughout the ten stories here, signifying some of the issues that remain important to the Chinese despite the momentous upheavals the country has undergone in the last century alone.
When I first read about Yiyun Li as an author who writes about the lives of Chinese and Chinese-Americans, my first inclination was to make a mental comparison between Li and Jhumpa Lahiri, who, of course, focuses on Indians living in their native land and in the United States. After reading A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, though, I'm not sure the comparison can go beyond the superficial. Li's stories are shorter, more direct; they don't have the extended, detailed quality of a Lahiri story in, for example, Unaccustomed Earth. On a deeper level, I also found Lahiri's stories to be more immediately impactful--there's usually a gush of emotion or reaction that I experience after finishing the last word of each Lahiri story. With Li, I ended several stories with either an ambiguous feeling, or would have to ponder what she might have been trying to say with the story I just finished. Li's stories may appear simpler at face value, but they require more active thought to process the deeper themes and messages that lie underneath the surface.
Another aspect I found while reading this collection is its hit-and-miss quality. I found myself fully immersed in certain stories that ended much too soon, whereas others didn't do as much for me. Overall, though, the collection offers an interesting look at modern China and is a good introduction to a writer whom we'll definitely see more from in the future.