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Must I Go Reviews

Must I Go by Yiyun Li

Must I Go

Yiyun Li

3.40 out of 5

8 reviews

Imprint: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 20 Aug 2020
ISBN: 9780241284285
  • The GuardianBook of the Week
4 stars out of 5
Kate Clanchy
28 Aug 2020

"salty, funny and well observed"

Lilia’s stories, though, as the one above shows, are salty, funny, well observed, and have an ironic, tragic edge. As she arranges them into a dense, crowded Chinese tapestry of characters, personal myths and history, her humanity and largeness of mind are also revealed. And as all those bleak edges and ironic gaps are laid together, so a pulled thread of grief is revealed in the weave: the unsolvable mystery of why Lucy died. Li demonstrates in this haunting novel that there is more than one way to tell the story of a person’s becoming, and that multiple narratives can work just as well as singular ones to help us understand the nature of grief.


3 stars out of 5
9 Jan 2021

"The Chinese writer’s novel about death and loss is meandering and muddy rather than clear"

The structure of the story, which is essentially Roland’s life from 1929 to 1969, with Lilia’s commentary, gives it a meandering lack of narrative drive, so the book feels longer than its 350 pages, and muddy rather than clear. And although Lilia is an interesting narrator, with plenty of beef to share, she is prone to speak in aphorisms (“Katherine’s loyalty was like her smile: you know she chose them because they were the easiest ways to accept defeat”), rather as some US TV shows see comedy as people saying witty things to one another.

2 stars out of 5
1 Sep 2020

"Li is one of only a handful of authors to write masterfully in an adopted language."

Whereas Li’s previous work is propelled by taut, seemingly simple sentences, in which rare examples of lyricism glisten like flint, Must I Go is weighed down with aphorisms and asides. ‘Not fond of softhearted people’, Lilia is prickly in a manner reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge: ‘Crying is not my way,’ she says of grieving her daughter. ‘Arguing is.’ While the character is endearing in her way, Roland is arrogant and self-absorbed, unable to feel much, even at Sidelle’s death. Li’s short stories and novels are filled with emotionally reticent characters whose struggles to relate we feel in the first degree. In this instance, Roland’s emotional core doesn’t quite emerge from the pages of his diary, and Lilia’s wry analysis isn’t enough to elevate the interest of his observations. ‘Perhaps some feelings are written in vanishing ink,’ writes Roland. ‘What if all feelings are?’

3 stars out of 5
Jonathan Derbyshire
21 Aug 2020

"It can be read as an attempt to dramatise insights about the way we shape and sift the detritus of the past"

In having Lilia fill out some of the silences and omissions in Roland’s story, Li strays from what is surely the emotional core of the novel — the relationship with Lucy (and/or Katherine). And if the tone of the novel is sometimes uncertain, the structure too is unwieldy, with the hectic swapping of points of view and serpentine chronology — though this is arguably faithful to the way a mind trawling the past for nuggets of the truth would work. Compared to its lean and costive predecessor, Must I Go is baggy and meandering. “Goodness,” Lilia exclaims at one point, “how fat this book is already becoming.”

4 stars out of 5
Houman Barekat
16 Aug 2020

"It’s the jarring fatalism over death that gives this novel its power"

The juxtaposition of Lilia’s wizened cynicism with the pathos of Roland’s conflicted disposition makes for a compelling diptych, but Li’s prose is blighted by her excessive recourse to aphoristic metaphors. Lilia says that marrying the wrong man is “like boarding a train that never takes you in the right direction”; “Everyone’s life is like Swiss cheese” (since our personal stories contain many holes); “The world is your oyster but once. The second time all you have are the oyster shells”; and, most egregiously, “People are like flowers. Some are born rare species, and they are assigned certified gardeners … Yet in the end all flowers blossom for the same purpose.” Unforgivably, Li endows Roland with the same tic. He remarks: “Self-doubt is like truffles. I wouldn’t mind flavouring my days with a sprinkle, but too much wouldn’t do.” The same might very well be said of these pungent little flourishes.

3 stars out of 5
Leaf Arbuthnot
15 Aug 2020

"Li’s prose in Must I Go is hard to fault. "

Li’s prose in Must I Go is hard to fault. The grain of every sentence feels measured, each word jealously dispensed. Nonetheless, the novel can be hard going. Not all readers will have the patience to piece together the shards of Lilia’s life in the hope that they will form a coherent whole. The major problem with the book is that while Lilia is good company — spiky, morbid, dispassionate, droll — her former flame, whose diaries must be trawled through, is far less interesting. In the end, it’s a hurdle the novel never quite clears.

3 stars out of 5
David Robinson
14 Aug 2020

"Can words ever hold us together and help us survive?"

The novel doesn’t quite work because Ronald’s intimate journal is, like Lilia’s inner monologues, too heavily aphoristic, but one senses what Li is trying to do. Roland’s life has already been heavily edited, with vast chunks of it lost. Over the years, his dreams deflate or start to look ridiculous. But he’s there not just as Lucy’s father (they didn’t know each other) but to provide distance and context, and to be retrospectively argued with, just as Lilia will always want to do with Lucy. Because as long as she can summon them up in words, there might be some kind of afterlife, however hopeless, in the incubator yet.

3 stars out of 5
9 Aug 2020

"like stumbling across a cache of personal papers"

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.