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)
"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
"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
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.
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, Teacher and Mrs. Gu-act and react towards the Revolution and then the later counter revolution?
2. Among the many characters we meet in Muddy River, there are several distinct family groups, including Nini, with her parents and 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” (103). What was he trying to tell her? What 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 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 unit, fare in Muddy River? How are they viewed by regular workers and schoolchildren, and how do they interact with such characters?
5. Gu Shans denunciation brings together residents from all parts of Muddy River society, yet the reader does not know her as well as many other characters. What can you infer about her character, beliefs, and behavior from the other characters? Was she guilty? Was 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 Bashis 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 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” (208). He clearly refers 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 Lis distinctive style and use of language contribute to, or reinforce, these themes?