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Amazon Best of the Month, February 2009: During the Cultural Revolution countless unspeakable acts went down in the otherwise unremarkable industrial town of Muddy River. Lovers betrayed lovers, children denounced their parents, and neighbors became sworn enemies. A few years later, the townspeople have convened at the public stadium to witness the execution of Gu Shan. A Red Guard leader in her youth, she has received the death penalty for her counterrevolutionary writings and unrepentant attitude. In Yiyun Li's startling debut novel, The Vagrants, we are introduced to Gu's parents, neighbors, and a handful of Muddy River's social outcasts whose lives have been irrevocably affected by her life and death. Yiyun Li's unblinking and unpredictable fictional narrative demonstrates how corruption and cruelty, fear, and moral ambiguity at the level of the individual reflect the dehumanization of an entire society. The Vagrants establishes Li as an important new voice in American fiction. --Lauren Nemroff
Yiyun Li's first full-length novel, THE VAGRANTS, is another in a steadily growing line of Chinese tales, in both fictional and memoir forms, from the terrifying, chaotic years of China's Cultural Revolution. That dark period, running roughly from 1966 to Mao's death in 1976, is fast becoming the Chinese literary equivalent of the Holocaust, a source for reflection on China's cultural mores, the power of one man and his misshapen ideas, and the brutal potential of conformity and mass behavior. Interestingly, however, no Chinese author of whom I'm aware has attempted to address the longer term impact of those years on the present-day lives of the young Red Guard participants, people now in their sixties and seventies, nor how they might be regarded by the younger generations who followed them. What must one think to look at one's parents or grandparents in China and wonder about their behavior (and fearful acceptance of others' behavior) during that time?
Regardless, with so many predecessor books, one might well wonder whether there were any more stories left to tell set in those specific years. Yiyun Li answers that proposition in THE VAGRANTS brilliantly, with a resounding "yes." Her story, set in the small town of Muddy River, employs what amounts to an ensemble cast. There's aging Teacher Gu, his wife, and their counterrevolutionary daughter Gu Sha. There's old Mr. and Mrs. Hua, itinerant and childless garbage scavengers who've finally settled in Muddy River after dedicating much of their lives to saving and raising abandoned baby girls. There's the congenitally deformed Nini, at twelve years of age the oldest of six girls in her family and a pariah even to her own parents. There's Bashi, a young man but regarded by the townspeople as an undesirable pervert.Read more ›
I've been an avid fan of Ha Jin until Yiyun Li came along. For writings on modern China, Yiyun is simply the best. After A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, I was afraid that any follow-up act would disappoint. Instead, The Vagrants shone brilliantly.
For anyone interested in modern China, I would say this is a must-read. It's not a political novel, though it's about a political time. Above all, it's a beautifully written human story about a group of characters of no particular importance in a small town; through them, we saw China and its scars and flickers of hope.
For someone who grew up in China during the time in the book, I marveled at Yiyun's capability to create so many characters, in such a short space, who felt real. I could almost hear the chatters and gossips of my relatives and the uncles and the aunties of my work unit though the pages.
Go get the book. It'd be a tough heartbreaking journey, yet it would be all worth it.
"The date set for his daughter to die was as arbitrary as her crime." So muses Teacher Gu as he wakens before dawn on the spring equinox, a day "when neither the sun nor its shadow reigned."
Gu Shan's crime -- she has been judged to be a counterrevolutionary for her writings, the nature of which the author never discloses in detail (deliberately) -- is one that she must pay for with her life, her nameless and faceless judges have concluded. Set in the China of 1979 - in the wake of Mao's death, but before Deng Xiaoping opened the door to free enterprise and prosperity - the novel has at its core the events that follow inexorably from Shan's execution. At the time, no one can anticipate what will follow; Shan, her vocal cords severed so she can't scream out at the crowds, is dragged before a stadium full of workers and schoolchildren who have been given a holiday in order to denounce her. Hauled off for execution, her kidneys are removed for transplant into (presumably) an aging Party official, a service for which local bigwigs receive coveted television sets. Then her body is brutalized by the man paid to bury her.
But Shan's fate, however horrific, is just the starting point for a tale of betrayals large and small that take place in the city of Muddy River after she is gone. Her execution brings together a host of unexpected and vividly drawn characters and sets them on a collision course with each other and with the officialdom that rules the smallest detail of their lives (such as whether a dead grandmother can be buried or cremated.) Wu Kai will prove an unlikely catalyst for the events that follow.Read more ›
This is definitely an author to watch - she writes in a sparse style that is both raw and powerful. Her characters are varied and strong, interacting with one another in constantly interconnecting circles. The build-up of the narrative was excellent, leading us inexorably to the final denouement.
The book is set in 1979, after the death of Mao. It is based around a factual event - the denunciation and execution of 28 year old Gu-Shan, who has been accused of counterrevolutionary activity and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment followed by death. This event affected many people in the town of Muddy River - from Shan's parents through to the radio announcer responsible for whipping up the crowds, to a young, deformed girl who unknowingly watches while the Shan's vocal chords are cut to prevent her from speaking out. As the ripples travel further, other residents of the town become drawn in. A movement to clear Shan's name begins to build momentum and the fall-out from this has far reaching effects.