‘Extra’ by Yiyun Li

This is a quietly devastating story with an inevitable crescendo of consequences. When 51-year old Granny Lin is made redundant from the factory, her neighbour matchmakes her with an ill widower. Granny Lin ‘tends his body with motherly hands’, the blood away after insulin shots and repeats the myth, started by his children, that his dead wife will be home soon – only to be left penniless two months later when she is blamed for his death. She takes a job as a laundry maid in a boarding school where she strikes up a close bond with  rejected six-year old Kang; she tells him stories and “tucks him in, the unfamiliar warmth swelling inside her. She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.” When Kang’s secret obsession with stealing girls’ socks is discovered, he is bullied, taking his shame out on Granny Lin and running away. Fired from her job, she walks into town where “All the people on the street seem to know where their legs are taking them. She wonders when she stopped being one of them.” Her bag is stolen and the story ends with her facing an uncertain future.

This human demise, full of logic but void of compassion or accountability, reminds me of Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ or Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Real Durwan’ – the descent of an elderly female servant against the backdrop of rising modernity, where clinging to the daily rituals of care and servitude cannot protect the vulnerable from the force of changing times.

In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Fourth Estate, 2006)

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