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'Wednesday's Child' deals in life after loss

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

"Life's like forever becoming / But life's forever dealing in hurt," sang Lou Reed in "What's Good," a track from his 1992 album Magic and Loss. "Now life's like death without living / That's what life's like without you."

Many of the characters in Wednesday's Child, the new collection from Yiyun Li, can relate. The short stories in Li's book focus chiefly on people trying to put themselves together after some kind of loss, dealing with anguish that takes its time, rises from its dormancy at unexpected moments. As Li puts it: "True grief, beginning with disbelief and often ending elsewhere, was never too late."

The collection opens with the title story, which references the old nursery rhyme: "Wednesday's child is full of woe." The story follows Rosalie, a woman who has taken a trip to Europe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few years prior, Rosalie's daughter, Marcie, took her own life at 15, shocking the woman and her husband, Dan. Rosalie's mother offers no comfort, telling her daughter, "Someday you should reflect on the mistakes you made. I'm not saying now, of course. Now may be too soon ... Any time a child chooses that way out, you have to wonder what the parents did."

The story is a deeply internal one, featuring Rosalie arguing with herself, writing in notebooks, still unsure what to do with her grief, or how to put it into words: "Life is held together by imprecise words and inexact thoughts. What's the point of picking at every single statement persistently until the seam comes undone?" It's a haunting, gorgeous story, reminiscent of Li's brilliant 2019 novel, Where Reasons End — both interrogate the insufficiency of language to give form to loss, and both somehow use language perfectly to illuminate the sharp angles of grief.

In "Alone," Li focuses on Suchen, who the reader first encounters at a restaurant in an Idaho ski resort, somewhat reluctantly drawn into a conversation with a man named Walter. Suchen's marriage recently collapsed, and after donating her worldly possessions to Goodwill, she set out for Canada, originally planning to throw herself from a ferry, making her death look like an accident. But she's found herself in Idaho instead, unsure of what to do with herself.

When Walter reveals that his wife died earlier in the year, Suchen is moved to tell him about her own past: When she was 13, she and five other friends planned to die by suicide together. She balked at the last minute, the sole survivor of a tragedy that tore apart her community. "You want to ask why," she tells Walter. "Everyone did. The truth is I could not answer that question at the time and I still can't answer it. All I can tell you is that it was not an impulsive action. We talked and we planned and we carried it out almost to the end."

The story showcases Li's gift for dialogue and her deep understanding of human connection. At the end, both Suchen and Walter both feel "vaguely comforted" by their encounter, although not in the way the reader might expect — Li is a master at understanding human emotion, but her tenderness never gives way to sentimentality.

The collection's penultimate story, "When We Were Happy We Had Other Names," is perhaps its most wrenching one. It opens with a couple, Jiayu and Chris, in a funeral parlor, arranging services for their son, Evan, who has died by suicide. "How had something this colossal found and trapped them, Jiayu thought, when they were so ordinary, so unambitious, so inconspicuous?" Li writes. "The death of a child belonged to a different realm — that of a Greek tragedy or a mawkish movie. What was the probability of an ant's being struck by lightning? And for the ant to survive and toil on? With what wounds?"

Jiayu, not knowing what else to do, starts a spreadsheet, listing everyone she ever met who was now dead. She hopes it will be a distraction from thinking about her late son, but fears that the exercise is futile: "Evan was here all the time: in the new, elaborate recipes she tried on weekends, in the vases of flowers she placed around the house to combat bleakness, in the hollow voice of the guided-meditations app that brought her little reprieve from heartache."

It's a beautiful story that takes a turn as Jiayu focuses on one entry in the spreadsheet, and finds an unexpected connection — it doesn't quite bring her relief or succor but allows her the chance to reflect, to mourn more deeply. Li perfectly inhabits Jiayu, showing a keen understanding of a person wracked by loss, unsure of how to navigate a life that will never be the same.

And that kind of compassion, coupled with Li's gorgeous prose and painstaking attention to detail, is what makes these stories so beautiful, so accomplished. This is a perfect collection by a writer at the top of her game, and a heart-wrenching look at how loss changes not only the bereaved, but their entire existence: "The world was not new and offered little evidence that it would ever be new again," as Li writes. "Perhaps grief was the recognition of having run out of illusions."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.