Growing up in provincial France in the 1950s, the main character of Yiyun Li's new novel is expected to marry young and have enough children to run the family farm. Agnès Moreau hates that her prospects are few, but what can she do about it? Facing similar pressures, her best friend Fabienne has an idea. What starts as a mischievous lark morphs into an outrageous hoax, setting the girls on vastly different courses.
Eerie and intimate, "The Book of Goose" takes the form of a memoir penned by an adult Agnès. The title alludes to her geese, which she admires because they behave like "the world has no right to judge them." Agnès lives in the U.S., and she's just learned that Fabienne has died during childbirth in France. This prompts Agnès to recount her intense early teens, when Fabienne devised their life-altering "two-person game."
Fabienne is creative but sadistic. She torments birds and gives dogs a pat followed by "a kick, just to cherish the confused terror in the poor beast's eyes." Always looking for some transgressive fun, Fabienne decides they'll collaborate on a disturbing book — she'll invent the stories and Agnès will transcribe them. With the help of a well-read local postman, they produce a collection of stories about doomed children. The book finds a publisher, and at the antisocial Fabienne's urging, the relatively refined Agnès agrees to pose as its sole author.
When the book gets some newspaper coverage, reporters describe it as a postwar metaphor for "France under American occupation, which was mad and foul beyond imagination." As opportunistic adults descend on its "child prodigy" author, the girls' charade spins out of control. Agnès' fame lands her a spot in a fancy but ruthless English boarding school, while Fabienne, lonely and resentful, claims that the postman is a sexual predator. Agnès suggests that Fabienne's allegation is suspect, but he's nevertheless disgraced.
Though the literary ruse drives its plot, "The Book of Goose" is mainly concerned with the lack of personal agency afforded to two very different girls — and how this shapes their destinies. Both want more than their village can offer, but until they write their book, only Fabienne has some power in her dealings with adults — because she scares them. When their book's success gives Agnès a measure of control over her future, the friendship takes a stark turn. Not since John Knowles' "A Separate Peace" has a novel wrung such drama from two teens standing face to face on a tree branch.
In prose shorn of unnecessary modifiers and frills of any kind, Li capably depicts the way a strong-willed sadist can browbeat a peer into subservience. Though Fabienne was a destructive force, the adult Agnès remains loyal. "We were not liars," she writes, "but we made our own truths, extravagant as we needed them to be, fantastic as our moods required."
Kevin Canfield is a regular contributor to the Star Tribune's books coverage.
The Book of Goose
By: Yiyun Li.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 348 pages; $28.