Agnès, the adult narrator, begins by recounting that this book is her telling the story of Fabienne, her childhood friend. They were young teens in postwar rural France, in Saint Rémy, where Fabienne dropped out of school at age 11 to herd animals while Agnès continued in school. It is Fabienne who dominates, with her cruel games and her declarations that Agnès is an idiot. Fabienne will pet an animal, then cause it pain to observe the reactions.
The two spend time with Mr. Devaux, the postmaster, after his wife died. Fabienne’s new game is to think of stories that Agnès, with her excellent penmanship, writes down and Mr. Devaux makes publishable. The stories are about the lives of the two girls and recount the horrors of rural life, including unwanted babies being fed to pigs. Fabienne insists that Agnès be listed as the author. Fabienne had enough stories for two books.
When the first book is published, Agnès goes to Paris and manages to appear to be its author. She is eager to escape the confines of Saint Rémy and looks for opportunities for the two of them to be in Paris, but Fabienne does not want to leave. The head of a girls’ school in Britain works with the publisher to have Agnès attend school there. The experience was not successful for either party, though the unpleasant Mrs. Townsend received publicity that would be helpful to the school. Agnès was homesick and corresponded with both Fabienne and Fabienne writing as her non-existent brother Jacques, appearing to be Agnès’s boyfriend.
Agnès didn’t want to be “finished” into a society woman. She enlisted the gardener in an effort to escape; he went to Mrs. Townsend, was fired for his trouble, and Agnès was sent back to Saint Rémy. When Agnès returned, Fabienne told her the non-existent brother had died.
Agnès and Fabienne drifted apart and Fabienne didn’t go with her when Agnès took an apprenticeship in a dressmaking shop near her sister. Word came later that Fabienne ran away with a circus that came through their town. Agnès moved to Paris and found a position in a department store where she met Earl, an American she married. After they moved to America, she was “never known again as Agnès Moreau who failed to live up to a fairytale standard.”
Word comes to Agnès from her mother that Fabienne, like her older sister, died in childbirth. Agnès recalls that Fabienne had said the books they would write together would tell people how it felt to be them, but in fact when others read those books, the two were nowhere to be found. “The real story was beyond our ability to tell. Our girlhood, our friendship, our love, all monumental, all inconsequential. The world had no place for two girls like us.” Agnès wishes she was able to tell Fabienne she has once again written a book, once again with her help. And perhaps it’s as real as the day when they were young girls “wanting and unable to kill each other, wanting and unable to save each other.”
In the effort to puzzle out the important parts of this book I have clumsily recounted the plot here. That was helpful to me to find its appeal and import and hope it doesn’t diminish it for anyone reading this.
Yiyun Li, The Book of Goose, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022, 348 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.