Seven months after Yiyun Li published her 2017 memoir of suicidal depression, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Li’s 16-year-old son, Vincent, killed himself; Li’s short novel of 2019, Where Reasons End, took the form of a bereaved mother’s dialogue with her teenage son, who has taken his own life.
No one could be surprised that the pressures shaping these extraordinary works can also be felt in Li’s latest novel, Must I Go, even if this time its narrative bears no obvious resemblance to the author’s life. Set in a residential home in California, it follows Lilia, a thrice-widowed octogenarian of Lithuanian ancestry, as she crafts a memoir intended to be read after her death by one of her grandchildren, Katherine, whom Lilia raised after Katherine’s mother, Lucy – Lilia’s daughter – killed herself at the age of 27, some 30 years before the novel’s 2010-ish present.
The prompt for Lilia’s recollections is the death of Lucy’s biological father, Roland, a would-be writer with whom she had a fling while still in her teens. He never knew Lucy existed; we come to understand that Lilia is pasting her memories into the margins of his only publication, a 700-page diary, issued by a vanity press, in which she appears on just a handful of occasions as an unidentified initial (at one point he says he has “no offspring - at least no one legitimate. And if there were bastards carrying my blood, they were not known to me”).
Lilia fills in the blind spots as the novel cuts between Roland’s diary and third-person narration anchored to her point of view. But it’s less straightforward in theme or structure than that might sound; Li’s intricate nesting of Lilia’s memories produces a stop-start rhythm that’s sometimes painfully short on momentum, as Lilia casts a withering eye over fellow characters from five generations – from step-siblings to great-grandchildren – many of them hazy presences whose importance is stressed rather than felt. When Lilia mentions a bullying ex-husband of whom we’ve previously read little, adding, for Katherine’s benefit: “I know, none of you knows that side of him”, it feels as if we’re eavesdropping, but not in a way that’s especially productive in any dramatic sense.
Lilia’s caustic temperament buoys us through the novel’s eddies; she’s quick to point out the shortcomings of others, especially Katherine’s eight-year-old daughter, Iola, written off as bland and dim. “Here’s a lesson,” she’ll begin, ready to riff on how “love is like a savings account” or why “a marriage reaching for happiness is like any average Joe wanting to make a cake as tall as Mount Everest and as colourful as a tropical island” (“and on top of that, to make it edible”). But between these hard-nosed insights and Roland’s self-serving delusions, the novel drifts: as we watch him swoon after one woman then another, dreaming of writing a great novel, Lilia’s criticism – “he just couldn’t tell what was important” – echoes in our mind the longer we spend in her company (at one stage she even urges: “This part is more interesting. Don’t skip!”).
Reading Must I Go sometimes resembles what it must be like to stumble across a cache of personal papers: there’s life here, in spades, but more shape, more compromise, narratively speaking, might have lent more spark. Novels built on memory often fall back sooner or later on suspense, however veiled. That applies here, too, but there are limits to how decently it can be resolved. Lucy’s suicide remains unaccountable, not least to Katherine; Lilia’s desire to tell the story of Lucy’s unknown father for her benefit seems a way to offer up a lost piece in the puzzle. If, ultimately, light isn’t shed, perhaps that says less about the book’s flaws than about the trap of viewing suicide as a mystery to solve – an undertaking that may account for several of the challenges here, for writer as well as reader.
• Must I Go by Yiyun Li is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.78 go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15