Memory keeps the dead alive: a review of Must I Go by Yiyun Li



Thank you to the publisher, Random House, for providing me with an advanced reader copy for review. Receiving this galley does not impact my review of the book.

“People are like flowers. Some are born rare species, and they are assigned certified gardeners, and people line up to catch a glimpse when they bloom...Yet in the end all flowers blossom for the same purpose, and none of them last unless you press them between pages.”

Life can be harsh and unexpected. But what follows after life can be even more cruel. 81-year-old Lilia Imbody, the cynical protagonist of Yiyun Li’s Must I Go, knows that when the living forget, the dead truly cease to exist. This fear-- of leaving life without a legacy preserved by loved ones, of becoming the wilting flower neglected from journal pages-- compels Lilia to annotate the diary of Roland Bouley, a dead ex-lover, with her own stories for posterity. Told through the personal writings of a dead man kept alive by a woman creating her own meanings in the margins, Must I Go exposes the desire to be remembered and loved as a ubiquitous part of human nature.

Lilia’s derisive personality immediately distinguishes her from her peers and allows the plot to bloom. After outliving three husbands and Roland, the unintended father of her daughter Lucy, the old woman expresses little patience for the emotions of others. She proudly describes her own heart as “stale bread”, criticizes kindness as a weakness, and dismisses storytelling because “none of us is special.” At one point, Lilia even suggests that planning the floral arrangements for her own funeral would be preferable to her assisted living facility’s memoir-writing class, simply to delight in the discomfort her comments generated among the other nursing home residents. In annotations equally exasperating and engrossing, Lilia applies her unruly life philosophy to harshly and shamelessly judge those around her: her dead husbands, immediate family members, and Roland’s wife Hetty are frequent targets.

“With a fancy dress and the right amount of makeup, any story can pass as something more memorable...Hetty didn’t have a story to tell...If you think I’m being harsh on her, well, I am.”

Ironically, by insulting those close to her, Lilia grants them the reprieve, remembrance, that she herself seeks. 

But the most compelling moments, those that enable the story to flourish, are the more intimate notes in which Lilia turns her severe lens on herself. Early on, a third-person narrator dismisses Lilia’s ability to reflect as now “vanished.” Yet the elderly woman’s annotations on her role in the life of her daughter Lucy, who committed suicide at twenty-seven years old, divulge her capacity for self-evaluation. Lilia never informs Roland that he was Lucy’s father and grapples with whether her harshness contributed to her daughter’s death. While she processes her misgivings, her commentary is heartbreaking and human: Lilia becomes contradictory and occasionally bitter when she wrestles with uncertainty and grief. As the elderly woman maintains that Lucy “shouldn’t have quit so easily,” she admits that she “re-lived those twenty-seven years many times”; as she denigrates the importance of storytelling, she continues to write for her daughter and granddaughter in hopes that someone will remember her story. These passages can be thorny. Li, whose own son committed suicide at seventeen years old, writes them poignantly.

Must I Gos intimate nature fuels both its initial flourishing and later wilting. Lilia’s survey of her life and Roland’s stories is exhaustive. However, at times, the old woman’s personal musings become exhausting. The journal style of the book lends a convenient format for the judgmental narrator to write candidly but burdens the reader with excessive detail. Like any personal journal, some of Lilia’s and Roland’s entries are exciting while others recount mundane days. Unlike a personal journal, though, a book aspires to hold the attention of an audience through a structured narrative. A greater emphasis on the events that drove Lilia to write rather than her reactions to Roland’s experiences would have prevented the middle passages from drying out.

- ★★★ -


  1. Bummer about this one. I feel like maybe less lengthy dialogue from the old women would have been beneficial.

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? 💬

  2. Lilia sounds like a thoroughly unlikable character. I don't imagine anyone wanting to remember her after she's gone! It's hard to love a story when you don't like the main character. Interesting premise though.