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Who Owns a Story? “The Book of Goose” reviewed

The works of Yiyun Li don’t only address the darkest of areas – grief, loss, sadness – but also deal with them in the deepest of ways. So, too, does her latest, The Book of Goose, which is about two teenagers in a desolate French village in the 1950s. Agnès and Fabienne have witnessed no succor in the years following the war: Fabienne’s older sister dies in childbirth along with her infant; Agnès’s brother, Jean, returns home from a German labor camp only to become gravely ill himself.

With all of this hardship, one can understand why the two women conjure up a world of fiction for themselves. Fabienne devises both a plot and a ploy: She will tell Agnès a series of morbid stories (one even includes the death of a child), and Agnès, who has better penmanship and a “more pleasant look,” will transcribe them and take credit for their authorship. Together, they enlist the town’s postmaster, M. Devaux, who is educated and worldly by St. Rémy standards, to help them revise the manuscript and submit it to a publisher.

Shockingly, the book, becomes a hit, praised for its “ferocious honesty.” Agnès is invited to Paris to promote the book, where she’s hailed as “a savage young chronicler of the postwar life.” While Fabienne is the engine behind the scheme, it is Agnès who seems to profit from it more.

Or does she? Li looks at the tenuousness in all aspects of life, from friendship to opportunity. Agnès learns how to treat the world as an audience, creating new fictions to satisfy what they want to her, but Fabienne, still stuck in a smaller world with fewer options, exercises more power over her friend. Part historical fiction, part fable, The Book of Goose is a deft parable that circles back to one incontrovertible truth: nothing lasts forever.