Reviewing Must I Go by Yiyun Li wasn’t on my content calendar. But it haunted me. This book dug into me, claws first. At first glance, Must I Go doesn’t seem so insistent. Just an old lady narrating and annotating an ex-lover’s journal.
Must I Go is shocking with brilliant sentences. Falling in the love with the main character (and bitch on wheels), Lilia, is a punch to the gut. Finally, the heart is annihilated when the behind-the-scenes, real-life story of Must I Go is revealed.
Must I Go by Yiyun Li
Must I Go by Yiyun Li tells the story of Roland Bouley through his posthumously published personal journals. Better still, his story is told through the lens and in the voice of caustic octogenarian, Lilia Imbody. Lilia is annotating this vapid and self-aggrandizing man’s diary.
Roland is the father of Lilia’s daughter, Lucy. Bouley never knew how fruitful his dalliance with a young Lilia had been.
Lucy has been dead by her own hand for thirty-seven years.
Though Lilia would talk smack just to talk smack, she has her reasons for combing Roland’s journal. Lilia’s looking for biological reasons for Lucy’s suicide. Snarkily examining Roland’s life and thoughts makes the whole thing more enjoyable for her.
Lilia Imbody, World’s Most Exacting Grandmother
I loved Lilia, but she’d probably hate me. Cuz that old bag hates everyone; none are safe from her disdain. Not her fellow nursing home residents, or her cute little great-grand-daughter (Lilia finds her bland).
Her searing observations are undercut with genuine wit and humor. Surely that giddiness betrays a certain vulnerability? Lilia will never tell.
The Women of Must I Go
Lilia, Hetty (Roland’s conventional wife) and, Sidelle (Roland’s long term mistress) make up the Trifecta of Long Suffering Women of Must I Go.
Hetty and Sidelle only glancingly knew of each other, and neither of them knew about Lilia. Lilia only knew them after death, through the eyes of a blowhard. The blowhard that these women’s lives revolved around.
Lilia holds herself above Hetty and Sidelle, telling herself she only clings to Roland’s life as a means to an end, to discover the secrets of her daughter. But, obsession is obsession is obsession. And Lilia’s got it bad.
How Are We Remembered? And To Whom?
Must I Go by Yiyun Li raises questions about posterity, mortality, and agency.
Hetty and Sidelle (a moderately famous poet in her day) are remembered only by Lilia, who doesn’t even like them. And when she dies, there will be no one. Lilia isn’t sure if this is a tragedy or not.
At one point, Lilia asks why it was such a tragedy that her daughter chose her death. Lilia seems to find grudging admiration for what she sees as her daughter “refusing to live another day,” opting out of creating a legacy. Roland’s daughter knew better than to leave behind a maudlin journal for public consumption. Lucy didn’t care about being remembered, at all.
Lilia wonders if, in the end, that’s the bravest choice. She knows that none of us really control our legacy, no matter what. This knowledge ossifies the hardness in her.
The Writing of Must I Go
Yiyun Li was one-third into the writing of Must I Go when her sixteen-year-old son committed suicide. In the most “uncanny coincidence,” Yiyun was forty-four, the same age as when Lilia lost Lucy.
Li wasn’t sure she could come back to Must I Go. But Lilia insisted and badgered. It was finished in a year.
Yiyun wrote another book in the interim, too. Where Reasons End is a conversation, argument, and plea between a mother and her dead son. Where Reasons End and Must I Go bookend a mother’s grief. These works encapsulate the rawest of emotions with care and beauty.
What books have haunted you recently? Drop them in the comments.