book review: 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.

18 thoughts on “book review: Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

    • You must!!! And I have NO CLUE. My only thought was that it may be too short? I know it’s longer than Ghost Wall in page length but since most of it is dialogue I wonder if it didn’t make the word count (if anyone reading this knows, please tell me…) That’s the only thing I can think of. If it meets the word requirement and still wasn’t longlisted I will be very upset indeed.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I think this is the kind of book that will break you if you let it, and I didn’t really want to let it so I ended up having a bit of emotional distance, but I put that on me instead of the author. It’s utterly brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Sounds like the kind of book you’d have to read in the right headspace to fully appreciate, but I’d love to read this sometime – the prose is just breathtaking. Thanks for the introduction!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely! This was a case of me picking it up only because my library hold had come in, but if I had my own copy I don’t think I would have reached for it right this minute… It could easily be a 5 star book with the right headspace. I’ll look forward to your review at some point!

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  2. I had read the first chapter of this a while back, but your review gave me the kick I needed to go back to it and finish it! What a great writer and thinker Li is—I love that she’s comfortable searching and probing and taking herself and readers down certain mental or linguistic pathways and leaving them at a dead end. I think you would find her book “Dear Friend…” really interesting, too—I think one thing that’s noteworthy about this book is that on a certain level she seems to respect her son’s decision (or accept it? or acknowledge that his choice made sense to him? I’m not sure what’s the right phrasing here), and I think her own thoughts on life and death and suicide, which she explores in “Dear Friend…”, help shed light on the conversations in this book. Great review as always!

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    • Ohh I’m very glad you returned to it! That’s a great observation about how so many of their conversations led to dead ends. I feel like books like this which philosophize on the nature of life and death can easily fall into the trap of being too conclusive and heavy-handed, so it’s ironic that the lack of answers here somehow felt more intellectually satisfying.

      Your review of Dear Friend piqued my interest in that one! I just checked and Overdrive has a copy, so I’ll pick it up as soon as I’m done this Women’s Prize nonsense. I did come to the same conclusion here, that she respects(?) her son’s decision, but I didn’t have much context for that mindset other than knowing she’s struggled with mental illness and has attempted suicide before. But, I’m very interested to see her discuss these topics at more length. I’ll let you know when I pick it up!


  3. This sounds absolutely amazing and maybe a bit of a heavy read but I have a feeling I will be finding how to get a copy soon. Amazing review as usual! Also that passage was brilliant, hitting the nail on the head in one swift stroke.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!! That longer passage I quoted are actually the book’s opening lines, so she truly does get straight to the heart of the matter. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read and I think it’s so brilliant. I hope you enjoy (if that’s the right word)

      Liked by 1 person

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