I’d started this novel by award-winning Yiyun Li at least five times since it was published in 2019. I finally sat down with it, reading once through and then again to take notes, in early December.
The story takes place in some alternate reality called “aftertime” where a mother converses with her brilliant and funny sixteen-year-old son who’s recently died by suicide. He still calls her Mommy, like he did when he was alive. He was a musician, an avid reader, storyteller, poet, and a phenomenal baker.
Li writes with a quiet, persistent steadiness. The following passage is one of the many I pulled from this novel because it spoke to the ruminating thoughts of the past, the abrupt end of the future together, and then wove in the reality of time moving forward. Throughout the book, I pictured my son talking with me in the very same way Nikolai did with his mother. Yiyun Li is a MacCarthur Fellow. See the genius at work here:
There is no rule against anything, including settling into too empty a space, he said. Makes you feel organized. Emptiness is different from unclutteredness, I said. Clutter up then, he said. Clutter, clatter, clot, cluster. None of the words, I thought, would release me from the void left by him. You’ll settle in sooner or later, even if it’s against your wish, he said.
Li’s older son, Vincent, died by suicide at age sixteen in 2017.
Here’s a review by Troy Onyango: