“On the day Liz Emerson tries to die, they had reviewed Newton’s Laws of Motion in physics class. Then, after school, she put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road.” (1)
Liz Emerson has orchestrated her suicide to make it look like a tragic accident on a lonely, snowy road. This is the scene that the book opens at, with the narrative subsequently flashing back to various points in Liz’s lifetime leading up to her suicide.
The one thing I undoubtedly loved about this book was the writing style – it was like an exquisitely crafted glass sculpture – delicate, but sharply clear, stabbing in its precision. Some of the lines are poetry:
“One day, she will grow up and imagine death as an angel that will lend her wings, so she can find out.
Death, unfortunately, is not in the business of lending wings.” (3)
“Liz turned off the music. Breathed, and looked up again to face the silence, but it wasn’t there. Not the kind she was running from. It was quiet, deeply so, but it was the kind of quiet that lived and moved and changed, filled to the brim with crickets and wings and the sounds of late summer.
Later, she lay on her back, staring at the curving sky and the stars, swallowed by the darkness so that she felt very small indeed. She wondered what was between the stars, if it was dead and empty space, or something less. That’s why there are so many constellations, she thought . . . Maybe everyone just wanted to connect those pinpricks of brightness and ignore the mysteries in between.” (28)
Liz Emerson is far from being a likeable character – terrible things have happened to her, and she, in turn, does horrible things to the people around her. She is the source of torment and anxiety to many of her classmates. If I was in school with her, I’d despise her. In fact, as I was reading this, there were many moments when I did despise her. A lot of her actions were downright cruel, and in no way alleviated by whatever suffering she’d undergone. There are many who undergo such suffering as she does, without resorting to the type of vindictive behaviour that she does.
But I think that’s precisely what the book was examining – everyone reacts to pain in different ways; everyone seeks out help in different ways. The way we perceive certain actions is not always accurate. Oftentimes there are more dimensions to a person than we can conceive. Zhang seems to urge us to try harder – try harder to help others, and try harder to help ourselves. Not only do those around Liz fail to see her cry for help, but Liz gives up too quickly and too easily when there are several avenues of “escape” – ones she realizes only as she lies their on the road, with the wheels of her car spinning.
I remember reading a snippet of an article somewhere which reported that the most common sentiment expressed by people who’d survived their suicide attempts was that as they though their time was ending, they realized that there was a solution or alternative to every situation that had pushed them to suicide in the first place.
There’s an alternative to every problem, another dimension to every situation, another aspect to every person. What’s needed is a little patience and understanding. More than anything, that’s what this novel impressed on me. It’s not enough to write off a person as what they seem – to scorn their actions, when we might not fully understand what their source is.
One of the problems I had, though, was the lack of exposition in paragraphs. Or what felt like a lack of exposition to me, anyway. It felt as if I was reading a narrative that was always short of . . . something. But I can’t pinpoint what that was, and I realize how annoyingly vague that is.
Similarly, the ending was also a little abrupt. It did slot in with what I think Zhang was trying to say, but, it still felt abrupt, as if there should have been more of an exhalation, a much more prolonged one, considering the number of shallow-breathed, accelerated moments that had come beforehand.
Other than that, this is a thought-provoking read I’d recommend to anyone, not at all marred by its unlikeable, prickly protagonist. If anything, that’s what makes the novel.