Where Reasons End – Yiyun Li (2019) 170 pages
Trigger warning: mentions suicide
Where Reasons End is a novella without a driving plot. It is written from the point of view of a grieving mother in dialogue with her dead son.
“I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy.”
The mother is a writer and is trying to make sense of what has happened in the only way she knows how.
“It was not a world of gods or spirits. And it was not a world dreamed up by me; even my dreams were mundane and landlocked in reality. It was a world made up by words, and words only. No images, no sounds.”
She does this with the full knowledge that she will never make sense of such an immense tragedy. Her son Nikolai died by suicide aged 16. In the space they occupy together on the page he is just as argumentative and contrary as any other teenager. It’s hard to know if Nikolai’s attitude is the mother/writer trying to convey how her son was in life, or if his harsh judgements are in fact the judgments and anger she feels towards herself.
“Since when have you become an avid consumer of inane analogies and inept metaphors? Nikolai said.”
As the title suggests, Where Reasons End does not aim for facile conclusions. There’s no way to reason out something so horrific that it is beyond all reason. This means that Nikolai is not a fully rounded character. We know certain facts of his life and we get a sense of who he may have been, but Li does not allow us the easy escape of trying to piece together why he would do such a thing. He remains out of reach to the reader in a reflection of how he was and is out of reach to those who love him.
“You cannot demand that everyone be perfect.
I can forgive everyone, he said, for being imperfect.
But not yourself.
I tried, Mommy, I did try.”
if I’ve made Where Reasons End sound a very heavy read I’ve done it an injustice. It concerns an immensely painful subject but there is humour in it too, such as the mother/child arguments between an exhausted parent and a petulant teenager. Nikolai’s unhappy that his mother has bought a real Christmas tree the first festive season after he died:
“Whatever, he said.
Oh, judgemental as ever, I protested in my thought. And unforgiving. And unyielding.
Yieldingly and forgivingly I inquire, he said, Did you decorate it?”
This is not the novella to read when you want a plot-driven story. But it is a sensitive and painfully real exploration of grief. Very sadly, from the in memoriam dedication at the start of the book, I believe that it is also drawn from real life experience.
“There is no good language when it comes to the unspeakable, I thought. There is no precision, no originality, no perfection.”