The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

If I were to provide a summary of this book, which I will, it will be the briefest and simplest. A rural girl and her friend, Agnes and Fabienne, make up games and decide to write a book. The local postman helps them and the book is published resulting in Agnes being sent off to Finishing School in England to refine her and support her writing. Eventually, she leaves the school because she hates it so much and goes back to her french village, Saint Remy, but the friendship is not the same. After many years Fabienne dies and Agnes tells their story. But it isn’t the plot so much as the way the story is told that makes it so much more than this. It is a coming-of-age story.

The book can be read as a tale of friendship between two girls, very much as a push-pull friendship, where Fabienne often has the ideas for the games they make up and is the more daring one, the one more likely to push. Some of her games are cruel, tripping up a boy on his way home from school, but all have a slight edge to them that is vaguely uncomfortable not just for Agnes but also for the reader. As they become older, their games take on a more manipulative streak with men, wondering how far they can push to get people into trouble. One of their games is to make up a story and to get it published – Fabienne makes up the story and Agnes writes it down. Mr Devaux, the postman, then helps them sort out the grammar. It is a fairly dark story about babies who die but is tied to their worlds where it is not given that a child will survive the first few years of their lives. At this point Fabienne takes a back seat and it is declared that Agnes wrote the book and so it is she who has publicity shots, appears in newspapers and then goes to England. This is so similar to My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante where one girl pushes the other to succeed and move away, becomes more educated and has a different life altogether than the girl who stays put.

Fabienne and I were meant for each other. We were the perfect pair, one seeking all that the other could experience.

Audiobook so no page numbers

The book is also a little bit Pygmalion or My Fair Lady, where Professor Higgins tries out an experiment to see if he can take the cockney flower girl out of Eliza Doolittle by exposing her to and teaching her about high society. In effect, change her because she is not good enough as she is. Part of The Book of Goose is about this. Mrs Townsend, the Headteacher of Woodsway Finishing School approaches Agnes’ publisher and suggests Agnes spends a year with her at the school so that she can help her improve/develop her writing. There is the implication that the rewards will be fame for the Finishing School and for Mrs Townsend with her name on the next book written by Agnes. Once again, the experiment doesn’t work. Mrs Townsend changes Agnes’ writing, making it more formal and therefore not something that sounds authentic. She demands that the book is titled Agnes in Paradise and is set in the school and rubbishes the ‘childish’ fairy tales that Agnes is starting to write. The story is called The Book of Goose because in France Agnes looked after chickens and when she moved to America she looked after geese. She may have physically travelled far and in terms of experiences travelled far but she has still ended up being the same person, a country girl looking after poultry. This is beautifully shown when Agnes gets back to the farm and sees her muddy boots. Surely they won’t fit her, but they do and the moment she slips them back on she is back to Agnes the peasant girl.

Even though Fabienne manages to get Agnes to England, the theme in the book that remains the strongest for me is the line drawn between the two girls which exerts itself across the sea and countries. All the time, Agnes defines herself through her friend, with her friend, and in her absence and it is this which draws her back to Saint Remy. It is a story told when one half of the main characters is dead, leaving the other incomplete. As she says, ‘death is not the end of the story’ and here you understand that Li is writing to her son, Vincent, who committed suicide at sixteen years of age.

One strange element of this obsession with each other is that when Agnes is away in England, Fabienne splits herself into two people to write to Agnes – one as Fabienne and one as Jacques. When Jacques and Agnes write to each other they talk of love, how they miss each other and their emotions. When Agnes and Fabienne write to each other it is about what they have been doing, the births and deaths in the village and a completely different set of letters. Underneath it all, Fabienne is as obsessed with Agnes as Agnes is with Fabienne it is just that Fabienne can’t/won’t show it or admit to it.

This book was way more than I thought I was going to get from the title.

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