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 child's clothing to ease her journey into the next world, is about to make another bold decision. Shan's 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 daughter's death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond.
©2010 Yiyun Li (P)2010 Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd
"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)
"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)
"Yiyun Li has written a book that is as important politically as it is artistically. The Vagrants is an enormous achievement." (Ann Patchett, author of Run: A Novel)
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"Distance voices in a familiar setting"
The epigram is alive and well and living in New York - which we already knew. But these days it has a Chinese voice and pre-occupation in the very capable hands of Yiyun Lee.
The apocryphal of a young former Red Guard now executed for crimes against the state, the thought-crime ridden town and the wider wrongs being inflicted on the so-called innocents that surround the event are told wonderfully in a language that is a distinct off-shoot of American.
The tone and pace - so distinctive and so Chinese - are maintained throughout and there is always the feeling when reading that the author is with it and of it and not about it. A troubled and troubling society seen from the distance of time and location is fascinating and enjoyable.
Best of all there are loads of brilliant one-liners, short descriptions and insights that flash across the years and the miles to the North of England now in a new century, but peopled by the same certainties and insecurities that allowed the events portrayed in the narrative to happen. Well recommended.
I heard this book reviewed on Radio 4's "A Good Read" - otherwise I'd never have known about it or wanted to read it. The story is thrilling but also heartbreaking and as an audio book it is utterly compelling right from the start.
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