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67 of 74 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 16, 2009
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. There's the young country boy Tong and his gentle dog Ear, and the maniacal old Kwen with his vicious black guard dog. Finally, there's the lovely, mellow-voiced announcer Kai and her husband Han, a government functionary from a politically well-connected family. Each has his or her own story to tell, full of secret hopes and longings and regrets, but they are all connected in unexpected ways.

Gu Shan's rejection of Mao's Communist Party orthodoxy and her horrible execution as a counterrevolutionary in the book's early pages serve as focal point around which the rest of the novel builds. Her "follow the Party line" parents suffer the immediate consequences not just in personal sorrow but in rejection and isolation by their neighbors. Young Ms. Gu's death leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.

For some of Ms. Li's characters, Gu Shan's tragic end holds a mirror to their own lives, giving them newfound strength to express their opposition to the mindless brutality of the Red Guard. Relationships, even marriages, are questioned and re-evaluated, while old relationships are strengthened and new ones formed through obscure coincidences resulting from Gu Shan's execution. Political protest takes nascent shape, inevitably resulting in more punishment and death. An old man retreats into a romanticized past, a criminal is revealed, and another crime is covered up. A young boy makes a mistake, as does a young girl - both have tragic consequences for their families. The weak-willed scurry for cover in the aftermath of the protest, willing to testify against their spouses and family. Despite everything, small acts of courage and kindness, some anonymous, propel lives forward and help retain a sense of sanity and a glimmer of humanity.

The book's title is telling, since it points to Mr. and Mrs. Hua as the anchors not only of her story, but of the other character's lives. Uneducated, poor, childless, living the lowliest of lives, it is the Hua's basic human decency, their love for the abandoned girl orphans they found and raised, that makes them true "heroes of the people."

Yiyun Li's writing often moves swiftly from one character's story to another, almost like cinematic jump cuts. Nevertheless, she manages these multiple plot lines smoothly and crisply, bringing them each forward so that some appear to run in parallel while others neatly intersect. In the end, they all converge to create a new Muddy River, washed over by the courage of Gu Shan's convictions and the blood of her execution and defilement. THE VAGRANTS is an admirable follow-up to Ms. Li's earlier, well-regarded short story collection, A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS. It is also more than praiseworthy in its own right.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2009
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.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
"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. Once she knew Gu Shan as a fellow Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution; today, Kai's voice represents the government - it is the voice heard over the loudspeakers at street corners throughout Muddy River, broadcasting the news. But her spirit is elsewhere.

Meanwhile, six-year-old Tong's heart lies in his grandparents' village, but he must find a way to carve out a life for himself in the city and he dreams of becoming a Communist Party hero. Nini, damaged before her birth when Shan assaulted her pregnant mother as an enemy of the people, dreams of nothing more than having enough to eat and being accepted by her family. But she is hungry and illiterate; she can't even read the posters announcing Shan's execution and instead focuses her attention on eating the flour paste that Mrs. Hua has used to fix them to the walls. Hua and Mrs. Hua live on the margins of the city's life, scrounging for scrap paper, cleaning up the streets and lamenting the loss of the six abandoned baby girls they had rescued, taken away from them by the government. Along with Bashi, the well-heeled but disturbed young man who, it seems clear, has all the makings of a pedophile, and Gu's elderly parents, struggling in the aftermath of their daughter's death, these characters will have to confront their essential powerlessness in the face of what appears to be, in contrast, a strangely impersonal and faceless government authority.

This is not a comforting book. It's an honest, unflinching glimpse at a world where human kindness is a luxury and casual brutality the norm. But it is beautifully written and structured, and serves as a reminder of the shadow that the Cultural Revolution continues to cast over today's China, a world in which great societal divisions still exist.

A bleak read, but a very important book. Highly recommended.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2010
A novel of abject misery and the horrible things that desperate people do to each other when they're pushed. Is it one of the works of Cormac McCarthy? Perhaps Faulkner?

Nope! It's "The Vagrants" by Yiyun Li. Take nearly enough characters to stack a George RR Martin epic, put them in rural China shortly after the Cultural Revolution, sprinkle liberally with poisoned dogs, tattletale neighbors, guilt, repression, and pure asininity and you get The Vagrants.

I'm sure it paints a realistic picture of how horrible things really were (are?) in that part of the world. But I think I'd rather read it in a history book or perhaps a magazine feature than a 300+ page novel. There really is no gleam of hope for these people. Their pathetic circumstances and the authoritarian government turn them on each other repeatedly. There are only a few redeemable characters and they are mostly sidelined.

What's more, the main thread of the plot winds thinly through a myriad of vignettes and tangents. Many of the characters are poorly developed and serve only to confuse the casual reader. Li has a background as an author of short stories and it shows here.

It certainly was interesting to read about this time and place; the presentation was simply lacking. I give it three stars because even though I found it tedious and not to my taste I am glad that it was written, I learned something from it, and I certainly think others should read it.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2009
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.

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2009
Gu Shan, a 28 year old former Red Guard, is executed one spring day in 1979. After her years of fanaticism, including the denunciation of her own parents, her crime is to have confided doubts about Communism to her boy-friend - who promptly turned her in for career reasons.

It's two years after Mao's death and China is taking a deep breath. There's a Democracy Wall in Beijing and a power struggle as to how to respond. In the little provincial town of Muddy River, where Gu Shan meets her end, pent-up frustrations cohere sparking a mini protest movement in response.

Yiyun Li, the author, was born in China in 1972 and grew up in the society she describes. She has created a set of beautifully realised characters to etch out a picture of small-town life, people we get to know well and to care about. Gu Shan's death and the spirit of the times creates a fault line, which is illuminated in the responses of each of her characters in the immediate aftermath.

We know from the blurb that it's all going to end shockingly badly and as opinion hardens in Beijing, the crackdown impacts upon Muddy River like a tsunami, brutally cutting down both real and imagined enemies of the revolution.

I thought at first that not one of the characters at the end of this novel had emerged with any shred of fortune or dignity. But on reflection I except Old Hua and his wife, the beggar couple who had asked little of the world and had experienced all of its tragedies. Perhaps they alone left the scene with their self-respect intact, the product of a properly Taoist survival strategy.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2009
I picked up a copy of The Vagrants at our local library, only to become so engrossed in the story that I felt I had to own it. I started reading knowing nothing about modern China, and finished the novel with some understanding of the political repression that exists there, despite the fact that this is fiction. Yiyun Li's writing is exceptionally fine, her characters are well-drawn, if not always admirable. I am hoping that our reading group will choose this as one of our selections for the coming year, so that I will have the opportunity to read it again, and to discuss it with others.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2011
The main theme of this book is political dissidence in a country where a small bunch of people has an (open or hidden) power monopoly, like here in China after the Cultural Revolution and during/after the democratic wall movement.

Totalitarian States
`As people are the most dangerous animals in the world', the powerful will always try to consolidate their power base and firm their grip around the neck of the population. Dissidents have to be silenced. Here, it is a former Red Guard who became a defender of open criticism (free speech).
A totalitarian or police State forces teachers to become liars, thereby turning them into `clowns'. The media spew pure propaganda and `offices become minefields where one had to watch for oneself, constantly defining and redefining friends, enemies and chameleons. With their fates and their families' futures in their hands, these people sleepwalked by day and shuddered at night.'
The State becomes a slaughterhouse: `butchers one day and the next day you will be meat on the cutting board. Your knives that slit open others' throats will one day slit your own.'

The author's view on mankind is deeply pessimistic: `betrayals often came from the most intimate and beloved people in one's life.'
The most ambitious and cynical specimen of the `dangerous animals' even use the corpses of the slaughtered in order to climb more rapidly on the political career ladder.

This forceful political fable, which transcends its historical base, is highly recommended.
One minor remark, however: it has too many protagonists.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2009
Dear S. Wang - Ms. Yiyun's novel is a work of fiction. Your review is off-base. But since you brought the subject up, while I did not experience the cultural revolution first hand, I have spent a good deal of time in China and have spoken with many people who did. Their experiences of that upheaval varied widely. For many the cultural revolution spun around them without having much impact on their lives, for others it was disruptive but not lethal, and for some it left deep scars and lasting bitterness. Reviews - especially reviews of fiction - are not an appropriate space for historical revisionism.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 29, 2009
Near the end of this novel one of the older and wiser characters reflects on `people who lived in blind faith and who would die...without a single light shining into their souls'. This is a gripping story, and it seems to me that it is about more than just its narrative. In all conscience the narrative is powerful enough. It takes place in China 30 years ago, after the death of Mao and the overthrow of Madame Mao and her Gang of Four. In a small provincial town a young woman is executed for counter-revolutionary propaganda, a local protest against this coincides with an apparent liberalisation of expression in Beijing itself, the national government panics and clamps down on all of it, and this is how it plays out in the municipality of Muddy River.

To me, The Vagrants is a study in what constitutes Groupthink. Something accounts for the origin of political (or, I suppose, religious) mass movements and something accounts for the way people go on adhering to them. Whatever it may be, it can be viewed as more important than the ordinary values of human sympathy that many of us guide our lives by. It is just not in the nature of some of us to regard (say) the Communist Party as deserving greater loyalty, never mind greater affection, than we owe to our own nearest and dearest. However in the first place this requirement is nothing exclusive to the Communist Party of China or of anywhere, nor even restricted to dictatorships generally. It thrives in all kinds of patriotic cultures, it flourishes in dogmatically religious groupings, it is the standard ethos in many large corporations, and I have concluded that there is no way of arguing against it. Indeed the book says as much. Not that there is any point in arguing anyway: thought crime is easily detected (or fabricated to suit) and the thought police do not waste time in discussion.

However another participant in the story makes the other main point to his young son, and this point is that individual conscience and sensibility is no path to progress. Mao's revolution did not create any blissful Elysium although it commandeered the vocabulary of that sort of thing much as mediaeval Christianity had done. It was all about Progress for the Masses, delicate individual consciences were a hindrance, an obstacle and even an outrage, and once again I cannot see how this perception is wrong, however little I sympathise with it at another level. There is absolutely no doubt that there exists such a thing as the common good that transcends humanitarian considerations in some sense. The trouble, of course, is that no policy and no practical philosophy can be so collective and universal that it does not require fallible individuals to define it and administer it.

What The Vagrants is about, for me, is the various ways in which such individuals interpret and enforce dictated opinions. Some of the characters here simply do not foresee what they are about to walk into, and they react prompted by various kinds of self-interest, be it just the wish to stay alive or to preserve what they have so far gained. Other actors simply never give a thought to what they `really' believe: they have a job to do and that is that. Others still, such as the young woman whose execution triggers the whole sequence of events here, seem to believe in a genuine way, and if you believe in a genuine sort of way you may by the same token change your mind in an equally genuine sort of way, and the Progress of the Masses will have to advance quite a lot further before it shows much tolerance of that.

The author is described on the cover as a young American novelist. Provisionally I am taking this to mean that she is not Chinese by birth but American. I cannot read between the lines of this book any lesson she may have for what we still like to call liberal democracies in which the individual is still supposed to be important. However if she is trying to make us aware of tendencies towards enforced Groupthink and marginalization or even criminalization of even the basic right to, let alone the expression of, individual liberties, she has made a good job of it so far as I am concerned. Communism no doubt created widespread misery while calling it happiness. Some recent ideologues whom I need not name have been trying to enforce group conformity in the name of freedom nearer to home. It seems to be a widespread tendency, and I hope it is not universal.
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