Recent reading: The Sealed Letter, Gold Boy Emerald Girl

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Set in Victorian England, this novel is the story of a scandalous divorce which captivated the newspapers of the time.  It centres around women’s rights campaigner Fido, who runs into her old friend Helen, and is unwittingly drawn into the tumult of the latter’s failing marriage. The book highlights the hypocrisies and frustrations of divorce in the nineteenth century. But perhaps more than that it is a story about friendship, about the difficulties of trust, and discerning the line between being a faithful friend and allowing oneself to be manipulated. I loved this book, just as I loved Donoghue’s Room last year. To me the characters of Fido and Helen, and their relationship, rang true.

 

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Li is a Chinese-American author, and this collection of short stories is set mostly in China. Most of the stories are about outsiders; people who for one reason or another are dislocated from mainstream society. Most, but not all, of them are women. And in each story a delicate alliance is forged between two characters. In the opening story we see a young girl in the army and her awkwardly friendly commanding officer, as well as her friendship with an old academic woman. In another a woman who has lost her child employs a surrogate mother in order to have another baby, and forms an unusual, tentative friendship with her. Another story tells of a group of older women who get together to solve mysteries. A summary of the plots wouldn’t do the book justice. It is a collection of beautifully understated studies of character. None of the stories hammer their point home. But each crafts a moving portrait of a spiky, uncomfortable character engaging and forming a bond, some successful, some not, with another. Yiyun Li is a talented, compassionate writer with a gentle but engaging style. I will look out for more of her work.

I highly recommend both books.

 

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