Synopses & Reviews
Shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
In luminous prose, award-winning author Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of unforgettable characters who are forced to make moral choices, and choices for survival, in China in the late 1970s.
As morning dawns on the provincial city of Muddy River, a spirited young woman, Gu Shan, once a devoted follower of Chairman Mao, has renounced her faith in Communism. Now a political prisoner, she is to be executed for her dissent. While Gu Shan’s distraught mother makes bold decisions, her father begins to retreat into memories. Neither of them imagines that their daughter’s death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond. Among the characters affected are Kai, a beautiful radio announcer who is married to a man from a powerful family; Tong, a lonely seven-year-old boy; and Nini, a hungry young girl. Beijing is being rocked by the Democratic Wall Movement, an anti-Communist groundswell designed to move the country toward a more enlightened and open society, but the government backlash will be severe.
In this spellbinding novel, the brilliant Yiyun Li gives us a powerful and beautiful portrait of human courage and despair in dramatic times.
"Li's magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim novel centers on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary in the provincial town of Muddy River and spirals outward into a scathing indictment of Communist China. Former Red Guard leader Shan Gu is scheduled to be executed after a denunciation ceremony presided over by Kai, the city's radio announcer. At the ceremony, Shan doesn't speak (her vocal chords have been severed), and before she's shot, her kidneys are extracted — by Kai's favor-currying husband &mdahs; for transplant to a high regional official. After Shan's execution, Kwen, a local sadist, and Bashi, a 19-year-old with pedophile leanings, bury Shan, but not before further mutilating the body. While Shan's parents are bereft, others celebrate, including the family of 12-year-old Nini, born deformed after militant Shan kicked Nini's mother in her pregnant belly. Nini dreams of falling in love and — in the novel's intricate overlapping of fates — hooks up with Bashi, providing the one relatively positive moment in this panorama of cruelty and betrayal. Li records these events dispassionately and with such a magisterial sense of direction that the reader can't help being drawn into the novel, like a sleeper trapped in an anxiety dream." Publishers Weekly (Copyright © Reed Business Information, Inc. All rights reserved.)
“Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. Nothing could be a more apt description of Yiyun Lis 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, author of Zoli
“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, author of The Dissident
“This is a book of loss and pain and fear that manages to include such unexpected tenderness and grace notes that, just as one can bear it no longer, one cannot put it down. This is not an easy read, only a necessary and deeply moving one.” Amy Bloom, author of Away
“A starkly moving portrayal of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, this book weaves together the stories of a vivid group of characters all struggling to find a home in their own country. Yiyun Li writes with a quiet, steady force, at once stoic and heartbreaking.” Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl
“There is a magnetic small-town universality to The Vagrants…but this is small-town universality with a difference. That difference is Communist China. The town isn't small; it only feels that way, as a provincial city where everyone seems to know his neighbor's business.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Yiyun Li's extraordinary debut novel…beautifully paced, exquisitely detailed…an amazing technical achievement….Li's genius lies in her ability to blend fact with an endlessly imaginative sense of the interplay of forces that powered the massive shift in the social order that led to Tiananmen Square…In this most amazing first novel, Yiyun Li has found a way to combine the jeweled precision of her short-story-writers gaze with a spellbinding vision of the power of the human spirit.” Chicago Tribune
“She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle.” W magazine
“A Balzacian look at one community's suppressed loves and betrayals.” Vogue
“A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression.... [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel.” O magazine
“[A] rich, expansive novel, which captures the anxieties and brutality of life during the last days of Maoism.... Li's story has an empathetic, uncannily graceful tone.” Kirkus Reviews
The astonishing first novel from the author of the award-winning story collection "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" weaves together the delicate moments between mothers and sons, husbands and wives, illuminating the reality of oppression and pain.
About the Author
Yiyun Li is a winner of the Frank O’Connor 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 master’s degree in immunology from the University of Iowa, she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received an MFA. The author of The Vagrants and 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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Gu Shan is a member of the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution. How do characters who are part of older generations—such as the Huas and Teacher and Mrs. Gu—act and react toward the revolution and then the later counterrevolution?
2. Among the many characters we meet in Muddy River, there are several distinct family groups, including Nini, her parents, and her five sisters; Bashi and his grandmother; Kai, her husband, baby, and in-laws; and Teacher Gu and his wife and daughter. What do these different family units tell the reader about family life in China since the revolution? What traditions have been upheld?
3. Teacher Gu reminds his wife of an ancient poem: “Seeing is not as good as staying blind” (page 103). What is he trying to tell her? Which characters experience incidents or confront issues of sight versus blindness? How does the message of this line relate to The Vagrants as a whole?
4. What does this novel tell us about being an insider versus being an outsider? How do characters who are clearly outsiders— such as Tong, who was raised in a village, and Bashi, who does not have a work unit—fare in Muddy River? How are they viewed by reg- ular workers and schoolchildren, and how do they interact with such characters?
5. Gu Shan’s denunciation brings together residents from all parts of Muddy River society, yet the reader does not know her as well as many other characters in the book. What can you infer about her character, beliefs, and behavior from the other characters? Is she guilty? Is she innocent?
6. Certain characters, such as Kai, outwardly appear to be agents of the state and disseminate state propaganda. In which instances do characters unwittingly act as agents of the state? What do these examples show us about oppressive governments and societies?
7. Ghosts, such as those of Gu Shan or Bashi’s grandmother, are invoked at different points throughout the novel. What role do ghosts play in the minds of the characters? In the larger story? What does the juxtaposition of modern government propaganda with traditional beliefs such as the belief in ghosts illustrate?
8. When Han fears a reversal of his good fortune, he reminds Kai of the saying that “the one who robs and succeeds will become the king, and the one who tries and fails will be called a criminal” (page 208). He is clearly referring to his own political future, but to which other characters and situations in The Vagrants can this saying be applied? Do some of these situations recur in literature and history? Compare these external examples to the ones in the novel.
9. Though the events in the novel are complex, they represent only one relatively small, provincial city in the vastness of China. Stepping back, do you think that the circumstances in Muddy River were similar to, or differ from, circumstances in other cities in China? Beijing? How do the characters view Beijing?
10. The stark and vivid images in this novel are unique. Can you point out a few effective images that helped the novel come alive for you as a reader?
11. Discuss some of the most universal themes of The Vagrants. What makes them universal? In what ways do Yiyun Li’s distinctive style and use of language contribute to, or reinforce, these themes?