These two collections of short stories by 2 prominent award-winning American writers from China both earned some praise, but they were both somewhat disappointing. Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers features several short stories set in China that are not so much about places but the various experiences and tribulations endured by people. Ha Jin’s A Good Fall is wholly set in New York City, about Chinese immigrants of different ages and backgrounds trying to make a living in their new land. I don’t usually enjoy short story collections much because I don’t really care about the characters and even when I get caught up or drawn to the story’s progression, it ends too soon. The only story that really appealed to me in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers was “Persimmons,” which is a group of peasants talking about one of their former friends, who lost it and went on a murderous rampage over a personal case of governmental abuse (which isn’t that far off when you consider some major news events that happened in China in the last few years). Suffering and disappointment are common themes running through all the stories, but in different forms whether it be infidelity, making the wrong choices in life for love or work, and tensions between family members. Overall the stories have a gritty feeling, giving an unvarnished and blunt look at regular life in China, shorn of romanticism or hyperbole associated with the country’s dazzling economic growth. Some of the stories also feature elements of the casual cruelty that is present in Chinese society and which also goes against the romanticized perceptions some people have about Chinese culture. A Good Fall was better though it fell short of my expectations. While suffering is also present in the tales, there is a good amount of hope and some characters do end up achieving success.
A Good Fall and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers- review