WHERE REASONS END by Yiyun Li
Random House, February 2019
Where Reasons End is an imagined conversation between a mother and the son she lost to suicide. The unnamed narrator (modeled after Li herself whose 16-year-old son died by suicide in 2017) is a writer, who deals with her loss by writing out a series of dialogues with her son Nikolai – not his real name, but as good as any.
This entire book is essentially an exercise in whether or not it’s possible to take linguistic ownership over one’s grief. The narrator and her son engage in a series of verbal sparring matches, challenging aphorisms and the kind of common language that surrounds mourning. But as well as bemoaning the limitations of language, the narrator also celebrates what words are capable of. “Words fall short, yes, but sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable.” The narrator doesn’t attempt to reckon with the question of why this tragedy occurred, and she isn’t interested in eulogizing her son in these pages; instead it’s a candid attempt to come to terms with her loss without losing her identity as a writer and a mother.
“I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy. Already there were three clichés. I could wage my personal war against each one of them. Grieve from Latin gravare, to burden, and gravis, grave, heavy. What kind of mother would consider it a burden to live in a vacancy left behind by a child? Explicate from Latin ex (out) + plicare (fold), to unfold. But calling Nikolai’s actions inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird on a new continent lost. Who can say that the vagrant doesn’t have a reason to change the course of its flight. Nothing inexplicable for me, only I didn’t want to explain: A mother’s job is to enfold not to unfold. Tragedy now that is an inexplicable word. What was a goat song, after all, which is what tragedy seemed to mean originally?”
Where Reasons End simply would not work if Yiyun Li didn’t have the superb command of language that she does. For whatever reason, this is the passage that I kept coming back to: “How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.” But this is the kind of book where you could highlight the entire thing if you’re looking for sharp and incisive yet sparse prose.
I will say: this requires a certain amount of mental and emotional investment from the reader; you need to meet Li halfway and you need to want to engage with what you’re reading. I don’t think I was in the perfect headspace for this novel, hence the 4 stars rather than 5, but it’s undeniably brilliant and it’s a book that I can see myself revisiting some day.
You can pick up a copy of Where Reasons End here on Book Depository.