Must I Go by Yiyun Li | Book Review

“Posterity, take notice!” 

So begins Must I Go, acclaimed author Yiyun Li’s fourth novel. This epistolary work follows Lilia Liska, a cynical 81-year old woman, as she reminisces on life. Flipping between the past and the present, the book tackles themes of mortality, grief, and family, as Lilia obsesses over the published diary of a long-deceased former lover, and annotates his journal entries with her own thoughts and commentary to be left behind for future generations to peruse. 

Having heard great reviews of Yiyun Li’s writing (Li is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Jean Stein book award), I had high hopes for this book, which ultimately faced a slow death. I found Must I Go a disappointing first foray into Yiyun Li’s body of work: the novel is a heavy, introspective read, and I quickly felt weighed down as I slogged through page after page of dense prose.

My biggest problem with this book was that I found it, frankly, boring. While Li’s cutting descriptions at times captured my imagination, there was little to offset the fact that the novel as a whole was poorly paced and lacked a sense of tension. Most books have a beginning, a middle and an end, where the writer lulls the reader through various trials and tribulations to come to some sort of conclusion: an emotional revelation, or fresh insight on life, perhaps. For Must I Go, that was not the case. As I made my way through the story, I often felt a lack of direction, and Lilia’s abstract monologues on life and death did little to resonate with me.

While the odd poetic or insightful phrase jumped out at me – “the moment you want to be remembered by another person you give him the power to forget you” – for the most part, time seemed to slow as I read this book. Lilia is not meant to be a likeable character – that much is clear from the first few chapters of the novel. But the disdain she holds towards everyone in her life was difficult to read for more than a few chapters at a time. Lilia’s life has not been easy – she grew up with parents who had little respect for each other in a loveless marriage, and her daughter committed suicide – and the contempt she holds for other people is evident with each abrasive critique made. As a woman in her early-20s who still has joie de vivre, it felt exhausting to live inside Lilia’s head.

What kept me reading was the elusive promise of some astounding revelation, where everything would come together and the story would have a sense of purpose. Yiyun Li’s reputation precedes her, and I was drawn to reading Must I Go because I was certain I would encounter literary genius. Not only has Yiyun Li studied an MFA at the prestigious University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, but she also teaches Creative Writing at Princeton University, my alma mater. Perhaps, then, part of the disappointment I felt towards this book is of my own making. I held unrealistically high expectations for Li: from Must I Go, I expected to be blown away – to experience from this book the kind of lingering emotional conflict that contemporary classics like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day evoke.

Sadly, that was not to be. Take notice: readers who revel in antiheroes, introspection and prosaic monologues will find Must I Go the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter’s evening. Those like me who are searching for something more tangible and hopeful to dig their teeth into would be better off reading something else.

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