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The Vagrantsby Yiyun Li
"Merciless as nature, Li spares her readers not one telling detail: the bloodstained bandages covering the wounds where Gu Shan's vocal cords have been cut and her kidneys scavenged by a Communist Party official; the tiny shack furnished with one chair, a cot and a tree stump where a tubercular intellectual conspires to redeem that unjust death; the myriad silences accompanying a former government news announcer to her grave. Yet this meticulousness enriches us with beauties both wild and mundane. Willow buds swell with 'the best green of the year — clean, fresh, shining'; 'white nameless flowers bloom all summer' in the meadows where female babies are abandoned to freeze in winter; a young girl feels 'a small tickling sensation...somewhere in her body that she had not known existed.'" Nisi Shawl, Ms. magazine (read the entire Ms. review)
Synopses & Reviews
Brilliant and illuminating, this astonishing debut novel by the award-winning writer Yiyun Li is set in China in the late 1970s, when Beijing was rocked by the Democratic Wall Movement, an anti-Communist groundswell designed to move China beyond the dark shadow of the Cultural Revolution toward a more enlightened and open society. In this powerful and beautiful story, we follow a group of people in a small town during this dramatic and harrowing time, the era that was a forebear of the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Morning dawns on the provincial city of Muddy River. A young woman, Gu Shan, a bold spirit and a follower of Chairman Mao, has renounced her faith in Communism. Now a political prisoner, she is to be executed for her dissent. Her distraught mother, determined to follow the custom of burning her only childs clothing to ease her journey into the next world, is about to make another bold decision. Shans father, Teacher Gu, who has already, in his heart and mind, buried his rebellious daughter, begins to retreat into memories. Neither of them imagines that their daughters death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond.
In luminous prose, Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of these and other unforgettable characters, including a serious seven-year-old boy, Tong; a
crippled girl named Nini; the sinister idler Bashi; and Kai, a beautiful radio news announcer who is married to a man from a powerful family. Life in a world of oppression and pain is portrayed through stories of resilience, sacrifice, perversion, courage, and belief. We read of delicate moments and acts of violence by mothers, sons, husbands, neighbors, wives, lovers, and more, as Gu Shans execution spurs a brutal government reaction.
Writing with profound emotion, and in the superb tradition of fiction by such writers as Orhan Pamuk and J. M. Coetzee, Yiyun Li gives us a stunning novel that is at once a picture of life in a special part of the world during a historic period, a universal portrait of human frailty and courage, and a mesmerizing work of art.
"In its acute tracing of ambivalences and unexpected twists and turns in people's motivation and behaviour, The Vagrants can put you in mind of Tolstoy or Chekhov." The Times (London)
"In this most amazing first novel, Yiyun Li has found a way to combine the jeweled precision of her short-story-writer's gaze with a spellbinding vision of the power of the human spirit to not only survive near-annihilation, but to open up a space in the devastation for some kind of healing." Chicago Tribune
"A harrowing portrait of a woman's execution by an oppressive Chinese regime, and how her death affects an entire provincial town... Li's story has an empathetic, uncannily graceful tone. A complex, downbeat, ultimately admirable tale of a cloaked portion of Chinese history." Kirkus Reviews
"Unflinching and mesmerizing, Li traces the contagion of evil with stunning precision and compassion in this tragic and beautiful novel of conscience." Booklist (starred review)
"Yiyun Li has written a book that is as important politically as it is artistically. The Vagrants is an enormous achievement." Ann Patchett
"Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. Nothing could be a more apt description of Yiyun Li's extraordinary new novel, The Vagrants. It is a book about a street, but a street that turns the corner into another street, then turns into a town, and soon becomes a whole country. Li finds the music in the smaller lives and makes them symphonic. This is history and memory at its most raw and brilliant, reminiscent of Saramago, Aciman, and Coetzee. The Vagrants is a novel to be savored and discussed." Colum McCann
"Every once in a while a voice and a subject are so perfectly matched that it seems as if this writer must have been born to write this book. The China that Yiyun Li shows us is one most Americans haven't seen, but her tender and devastating vision of the ways human beings love and betray one another would be recognizable to a citizen of any nation on earth." Nell Freudenberger
About the Author
Yiyun Li is a winner of the Frank OConnor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. She grew up in Beijing and attended Peking University. She came to the United States in 1996 to study medicine and started writing two years later. After receiving a masters degree in immunology from the University of Iowa, she attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she received an MFA. The author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Li was selected for a Whiting Writers Award and was named by Granta as one of best young American novelists under thirty-five. Li teaches at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.
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