literary journalism

Yiyun Li’s ‘Must I Go’

‘Posterity, take notice!’ is an exhortation that appears twenty-three times in the posthumously published diary of Roland Bouley, a provincial bookseller and frustrated novelist. The only person taking notice, however, is 81-year-old Lilia Liska, a three-time widow and mother of five, who spends her days in a California nursing home annotating its pages.

Lilia and Roland had a fling just after the Second World War, when she was sixteen. While Lilia was marginalia to him, earning only a few mentions in his diary, Roland played a significant role in her life, as she conceived a child during the brief affair. Their daughter, Lucy, of whom Roland was never made aware, committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven, when her daughter was two months old. Lilia’s efforts at annotation are ostensibly to leave a record for her granddaughter. But what she really hopes to gain by dissecting the diary is clues to Roland’s character that might help her make sense of Lucy’s death.

Trying to come to terms with a child’s suicide is a continuation of the theme of Li’s previous book, Where Reasons End (2019), a haunting conversation between a mother and her recently departed sixteen-year-old son. While it was marketed as a novel, the autobiographical element was impossible to ignore: shortly after the publication of her ‘anti-memoir’ Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2017), which documented Li’s struggles with depression (including two suicide attempts), her elder son took his own life at sixteen. ‘Where else can we meet but in stories now?’ asks the grieving mother in Where Reasons End...

Read the full article online in the Literary Review

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