...this account of her journey back to equilibrium, assisted by her closest companion, literature, is as powerful as any of her award-winning fiction, with the dark fixture of her Beijing past at its centre ... Though billed as a consolation for 'like-minded readers,' the book does not neatly fall within such a narrow definition. As with Li’s fiction, her struggle to admit life over death is at times traumatic to read, all the more so because there is a barely concealed agony in the scrupulousness of its measured words ... Plangent and precise, this is Li’s personal anatomy of melancholy.
Li’s transformation into a writer — and her striking success (she is the winner of a MacArthur 'genius' grant, among other prestigious awards) — is nothing short of astonishing. But most of the essays here tend to center on the personal unraveling that accompanied this metamorphosis: two hospitalizations following suicide attempts and time spent at a recovery program ... Li can be an elusive writer, and her meditation on the teleology of pain and memory sometimes reads like a series of aphoristic koans...The reader never doubts that Li is an incisive thinker, but her tendency to sublimate her own emotions in the correspondence between others, be it Turgenev to Henry James or Chekhov to Tchaikovsky, occasionally puts one in mind of a devout nun’s scrupulous study of her prayer book ... The most memorable essay in the collection is not the most personal one but rather recounts Li’s relationship to English, which she calls her 'private language.'”
There is a lot of loss in this book, most notably the loss of one’s life by one’s own hands. How does one come to terms with a strong urge to commit suicide? How does one make sense of this urge when outwardly one is 'an example of the American dream come true?' How does a writer partake in a genuine conversation with a world that loves the sight and sound of success stories — the splendor without the abyss beneath? ... Li’s ruminations on her anguish are so poignant that it’s nearly impossible not to close your eyes and give her a long mind-hug when she says 'again and again my mind breaks at the same spot as though it is a fracture that never fully heals' ... Interspersing her thoughts with stories from her Beijing childhood and her time in the army, Li doesn’t allow us too far behind the scenes of her private life, and I salute that ironclad hold on writerly privacy. Still, from what she tells us about her mother — the 'family despot'— I was left disturbed and wishing she would tell us more explicitly about the link, if there is any, between her mother’s invectives and Li’s eventual melancholia ... Li has stared in the face of much that is beautiful and ugly and treacherous and illuminating — and from her experience she has produced a nourishing exploration of the will to live willfully.