What started off as livid descriptions of old Chinese people, is now slowly turning out to be this motley collection of people and relationships. Actually, come to think of it, it is more about people than relationships. It seems to be a concentrated effort to concentrate on people, than the relationships they share. And therein lies the beauty. The next two stories Love in the Marketplace (Story.5) and Son (Story.6) are both about a mother and her child, a girl who has lost her first love in the former and a son who is gay in the latter. In either of the stories, Yiyun spends words generously in establishing characters and people. Their thought process is exposed. Their words are told. Their persona is defined through their actions. And the mothers in their own ways, in both the stories are searching for a child lost in the body that shares space with them. Yiyun's central characters are prominent, either by their strength or weakness, dominance or vulnerability. But every character changes. It is either an incident, or an action by another person. But they change, leaving us wondering about the strength and self-belief portrayed till that point.
In Love in a Marketplace, the protag, Sansan, has lost her love, and it is her own doing. She is unapologetic about it. Doesn't regret it. She has accepted it and now, her mother wants her to reverse her emotions. Ma asks Sansan to go back to Tu (her lost love who married her best friend, Min, on her insistence) because she has waited for her. Ma assumes Sansan has waited for Tu, because in the 10 years since Tu and Min went to America, she hasn't married or met another man. Tu has 'had her' and Sansan would marry only him, Ma assumes. Sansan insists on her 'cleanliness' and has promised herself never to go back to Tu.
"Why do you want to be the best egg seller in the world, ma?"
"I tell the people I sell the best eggs, I have to keep my promise."
"Nobody cares ma, you are keeping a promise that only matters to you. I have my promise to keep", she asserts again.
A promise is a promise, a vow remains a vow she reminisces capturing the essence of the movie Casablanca - which has defined life for her. And then, in a moment of insanity she meets her match, right there at the marketplace. She meets a person who keeps his promise, and she gives him a cut from shoulder to elbow - just as he promised.
The next story 'Son' on the other hand, is about a son who is gay and works in America. He comes, only to spend some time with his mother and they disagree right from the time they leave the airport. Yiyun deviates from her usual style. All character description is done through dialogues. In her earlier stories, her characters reveal themselves in their thoughts and dreams. Not in dialogue. So, here the narration transforms to a movie. We hear constant discussions, arguments and the son talks in punch lines.
"... What I am saying is many things are circulated and recycled. Language is one of them. Faith is another. They are like bills in our wallet. You can buy things with them, but they themselves hold no meaning"
He says, pointing out to Ma's converted faith from communism to church. Talking about either at the time of the other was blasphemous. Ma is hurt - but as soon as they reach home she forgives. No, forgets. Ma has to accept her son for what he is. The son is living an underground life. A life of anonymous identities on the internet. And then she takes him to the church. An incident involving two young beggars changes the son's outlook. He shares his little secret with his Ma. She accepts him for what he is and assures that
'God loves you for what you are, not for what others expect you to be'
He wants to make a joke on her god, but his eyes meet her eyes that are so loving and hopeful. He turns his eyes away.
PS: More on A Thousand Years of Good Prayers here: Part 1, Part 2