Nothing is more inexplicable than friendship in childhood. It is not companionship, though the two are often confused. . . . Childhood friendship . . . is something rarer: a child does not seek to bond with another child. The bond, defying knowledge and understanding, either is there, or is not; once a bond comes into existence, no child knows how to break from it until the setting is changed. It baffles me that often songs and poems are written about love at first sight: those who claim to experience the phenomena have preened themselves, ready for love, there is nothing extraordinary about that. Childhood friendship, much more fatal, simply happens.
—The Book of Goose
When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—the age of Agnés and Fabienne, the two protagonists of Yiyun Li’s latest novel—I was besotted with my friend K. She was a year younger, and we did everything together—attended the same school, the same afterschool art program three nights a week, hung out on weekends. Back then, all that mattered to us was our art and our friendship; we had the same aspiration of making a career out of our art. There was an airy, effervescent quality to K. that infused her sinuous, elegant drawings, whereas mine always felt to me a bit severe, moody, harsh; my envy of her technique pushed me to work harder. She was tall and blond, quick to laugh, popular with boys, and I was always a little bit jealous of her, but also—being older—a little protective. We shared everything: art supplies and clothes and cigarettes and other people’s leftover pastries in decrepit end-of-the-empire Soviet cafeterias; for a spell, we shared the kisses of a boy at our school (I kissed him first). Our friendship was absolute, and it contained all the delights and cruelties two teenagers can bestow upon each other. “Back then we often knew what we were doing without having to talk things over between ourselves. But was it such a surprise? We were almost one person. I do not imagine that the half of an orange facing south would have to tell the other half how warm the sunlight is,” Agnés, Li’s narrator, says of her friendship with Fabienne.
Agnés and Fabienne are thirteen when we meet them in a village in hungry, impoverished postwar France; K. and I were thirteen and fourteen when we met in Leningrad at a time of imperial collapse. “The way we lived back then—the stench and the filth, the animals running amok, and the people crazier than the animals—these things I had not found extraordinary until I was told, later in Paris and in England, that they were”—this describes rural France in 1952 and the Soviet Union circa 1989, both places indifferent to the needs of teenage girls, except instead of animals running amok, we had gangs of skinheads, a heroin epidemic, food shortages, mob violence, and the intrinsic knowledge that we had to be unlike the others to survive—the knowledge Agnés and Fabienne also share about Saint Rémy, where the adults are “rude and ridiculous,” and where the girls, Fabienne especially, are considered antisocial and arrogant.
K. and I had our art; Agnés and Fabienne have a game Fabienne has come up with: they will write books, or, rather, Fabienne, who dropped out of school to support her widowed father and brothers, will dictate them, and Agnés, who has better handwriting, will write them down, under Agnés’s name. The game soon becomes more than a game, and Agnés gets noticed and joins the ranks of the French child prodigies of the 1950s: Francoise Sagan, Minou Drouet. But it is Fabienne, in Agnés’s recounting, who holds all the fire, and Agnés is uncomfortable with her newfound—and unearned—notoriety, which takes her first to Paris, then to a finishing school in Britain. Without Fabienne close by, Agnés is lost. I don’t recall my days without K., probably because they were, to me at the time, not worth remembering.
“Fabienne and I did not drift apart overnight,” Agnés writes, “but as so many people before and after us, I chose to retreat, and for the first time I led the way; she had no option but to follow.” I cannot say why K. and I stopped being inseparable; what I do remember is that the setting had changed: like many in our circle, K. became addicted to the heroin people cooked in their homes with the air-dried milk scraped from poppy seed pods in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Why did I not become a junkie? I am not sure; I think I was afraid to try. I think, deep down, I thought K. braver than myself, the way Agnés sees Fabienne—the fearless girl who flies up trees, who tests the limits of her (and Agnés’s) physical endurance, who refuses to play nice, who confronts the world head-on.
All those years we had made ourselves believe that we were two apples hanging next to each other on the same branch. . . . But that was only our make-believe. The truth is, Fabienne and I were two separate beings. I was a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade. There was no point asking which one of us was made of harder material.
K. and I were fourteen and fifteen then, and I remember trying, for months, to stop her. But I cannot say that I tried entirely out of concern and love for her, that there was not also a smidge of jealousy, a sense that she was leaving me for a more daring, breakneck world. At any rate, she did not heed my entreaties. I don’t remember the day or the place, but I do remember the hot groin-stab of the last words she said to me, in response to my pleas that she stop shooting up: “You are not my mother.”
“You can climb a tree, and if you are agile like Fabienne, you can jump down without hurting yourself. But it was not a treetop where we found ourselves then; rather, we were at the edge of a chasm. Had we chosen to jump together, hand in hand, we would not have survived, but we would not have parted, either,” Agnés explains. I could no longer follow K. where she wanted to go. I graduated high school early, did some college, got a job at a newspaper, stopped smoking weed, had a baby, and moved to the United States.
The last time I saw K., it was by accident. I was twenty, she was nineteen. It was before the baby—I may have been pregnant—but I was already a journalist then, my first writing job. I was walking south on Sadovaya Street and saw her sway, high on drugs, near a dirty white bench by St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral. A skeletal girl, deathly pale, needle marks up her arms and between her fingers. Her eyes were closed. I said nothing to her then: she was, I knew, already elsewhere. Then she disappeared. Fifteen years ago, I tried to find her, asked various classmates, and was told that she had died. I grieved, but I was not surprised. Many of my friends from that time had died of overdose or organ failure caused by drug abuse, including the schoolmate we both had kissed.
The Book of Goose is not a book about childhood friendship; it is a book about its end. Agnés is twenty-seven when she finds out that Fabienne, whom she last saw twelve years earlier, has died in childbirth. It is from that distance, the distance of hindsight and now indisputably irrevocable loss, that Agnés sets out to describe their friendship, and she describes it as doomed from the start:
I now know that so much of our story began with Fabienne’s exultation and despair, both out of my reach. For as long as I could be the outlet of her exultation and her despair, life was bearable, even interesting, to her. I was the whetstone that sharpened her mind’s blade; I was the orange that she cut into effortlessly. All the same, I could not save us.
The problem with a first-person narrative is that we only get the narrator’s point of view. We know what Agnés thought and felt, but what was their friendship like for Fabienne? We can never know: she is dead, fixed forever in and through Agnés’s eyes. But this is how each of us mostly sees the world anyway, through our eyes only. My friend K. became only what I remember of her, what I remember of the power plays and exploitation and revery of our interactions. After I began to write this essay, my mother told me that it was K.’s father who had put an end to our friendship: he forbade K. to interact with me because, in his eyes, I was responsible for her addiction. “You were trying to save her, I saw how much you suffered because she was slipping, but he thought you were a bad influence,” my mother said. “He even called us to tell us to keep you two separate.” She hesitated. “Or maybe he didn’t, maybe it was that he went to the school to tell the administration.” (In The Book of Goose, it is the finishing school’s headmistress, Mrs. Townsend, who tries to stop Agnés from corresponding with Fabienne.) The bit about K.’s father was news to me, but memory is fickle. Maybe I had known it and forgotten it, or maybe my mother had chosen to protect me from the unfairness of it at the time. Thirty years had passed: who can recall all the minutiae of such a long-ago heartbreak?
A good novel will put into words aspects of life that you had no way to express; a great novel will summon aspects of your life into existence. The day before I finished reading the book, K. friended me on Facebook. For a minute, my eyes ran over and over the name, the way fingers run over an engraving on a tombstone. Then I clicked on it. I scrolled through images: she was still blond, she had gained some weight, she’d had a terrible accident, she had a dog, she’d lived in Europe but now is back in Russia. Her art was still as stunning as I remembered it, her lines effortless and precise, but she was not, it appeared, pursuing it professionally. I wrote back right away. We chatted back and forth, in exultation and joy. I could not believe she was still alive, my beautiful friend. We agreed to a WhatsApp video chat.
When I called K., seven time zones away, she was drunk. She talked nonstop. She wept, smoked, wept again. For an hour, I listened to her proclaim her undying love to me. She called me her guru, the object of her admiration, she said no one had influenced her more in life than I had. Remember, she said, it was you who taught me to smoke weed? Remember, it was you who introduced me to that guy? The guy to give K. her first taste of heroin. Remember, I was so in love with you? I was jealous of all the boys you liked.
So K.’s father was right: it was I who had been the blade, after all. I was the instigator, I the one who had steered her toward the addiction that had almost killed her—the addiction that, I and many others had believed for years, had killed her. (“You can hand the knife to another person, betting with yourself how deep a wound he or she is willing to inflict. You can be the inflicter of the wound,” Li writes on the novel’s first page.) In the three seconds K. allowed me to speak during our call, I told her I was sorry, but she brushed me off, drew a wide arc in the air with the tip of her cigarette. I’ve always been susceptible to various substances, she said, and I agreed. Our country back then was a meat grinder, and not everyone survived, she said, and I agreed. We both have survived, she said, with varying degrees of success. True again. What matters, she said, is that we have made it through that time, and that we have found each other. But I am not so sure that we have.
“I may not have gained full freedom, but I am free enough,” Agnés writes about her decision to tell her and Fabienne’s story after learning of Fabienne’s death. Agnés makes it out, to America, where her American husband’s family in upstate Pennsylvania embraces her. She will never know the story of Fabienne, because, unlike K., Fabienne did not make it out of the meat grinder. But do I know K.’s and my story any more now that we’ve talked? Have I gained my freedom?
Every childhood friendship is a secret world invisible to everyone but the friends; every secret world ends some way. When we first meet Agnés, she is living in Lancaster and is married to Earl, who “works for his father, a well-respected contractor.” “Earl loves me, and I love being married to him,” Agnés explains. She has a vegetable garden and raises chickens and geese in the backyard. Her attempt to raise goats, as she and Fabienne did when they were friends, has failed: the two kids she had acquired have run away.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is not Saint Rémy, and I cannot turn myself back into a goatherd. “A French bride” is how I was first known to the local people, and some, long after I stopped being a new wife (we have been married for six years now), still refer to me by that name. Earl likes it. A French bride adds luster to his life, but a French bride chasing goats down a street would be an embarrassment.
In a way, The Book of Goose can be read as a story of how the maladjusted and creative girl Fabienne pushed her bland and untalented friend Agnés out of the smallness of their postwar back of beyond into successful, mature, dull adulthood. Later, Fabienne herself tried to make it out: after teenage Agnés leaves Saint Rémy to become a dressmaker’s apprentice, there are rumors that Fabienne has joined a traveling circus: “not a bad choice at all for that girl, people said. Even I made myself believe that: she was good with animals, she was good at flying high, too.” (About K.’s accident: she was hiking in the mountains in Málaga and fell eighteen feet. She shattered multiple bones, survived a coma, and spent a year in a wheelchair. Her Spanish boyfriend—“we went to all these rock concerts, it was wonderful!”—wasn’t set up to take care of her, she said, so her mother brought her back to Russia.)
The next time Agnés hears about Fabienne, it is a decade later, and Fabienne has returned to Saint Rémy, though Agnés doesn’t know why; a year later, Fabienne dies. I am grateful that K. is alive and I got to hear her version, however garbled, of the story about our girlhood and our love—“all monumental, all inconsequential,” as Li writes on the last page of The Book of Goose. K. and I pushed each other out of the drabness of early post-communist Russia, too, and we both did escape, each in her own way, though I am not sure one can entirely grow up from a childhood like ours, or how long that takes.
At the end of the novel, Fabienne taunts Agnés after Agnés returns from her time at the finishing school in England: “Why, did you forget how to climb a tree?” This may be not quite how a childhood friendship ends, but this is definitely how childhood ends: we forget how to climb trees, we become fearful of heights and décor and consequences, if we live that long. Agnés writes that her account is “the real story of Fabienne and Agnés,” but she writes it alone, as a sensible adult who knows not to chase goats down a street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1966—and can we trust ourselves to tell the real story of our childhood and its fatal friendship once we have survived them? Perhaps not. And perhaps that is precisely why a first-person narrative is the only honest way of telling a story of bygone love: the choice of point of view forewarns the reader that the story will be incomplete, inaccurate, lopsided, defying knowledge and understanding, marvelously rife with yearning.
© 2023 by Anna Badkhen. All rights reserved.