The Vagrants by Yiyun Li #BookReview
Published by HarperCollins UK
Published date 2013-03-28
Genres: Asian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction
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.
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 Shan’s 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.
After reading A Long Way Down I wanted something “serious” to read. I chose The Vagrants because a novel about communist China seemed perfect. The Vagrants was definitely a serious read, but even weeks later I still don’t know how I feel about it.
The Vagrants is about a small provincial town in 1970s communist China. We read the story from the point of view of a handful of the town’s citizens, including: an old father whose daughter is executed as a counterrevolutionary, a crippled girl who society shuns, a selfish and idle young man, a female government official, and a young village boy. Each character offers a different perspective towards living under communism. However, their lives interlace throughout the novel and finally contribute to a momentous climax.
I found Teacher Gu’s (the old father) perspective particularly intriguing as he experienced life before, during, and after the revolution. Before the revolution he was a government official for education and a scholarly man. After the revolution he is demoted and became a simple school teacher. You’d expect anger and hatred from him, but over the years Teacher Gu became submissive to life and everything it brings. Even when his daughter is executed he maintains composure whilst his wife is distraught. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was being strong or if he was lacking in compassion after all the carnage he witnessed.
My favourite characters were the Hwa’s. I found their back story overwhelmingly poignant. We’re told that the Hwa’s spent most of their lives homeless and walking the streets. Unable to have a child, the Hwa’s would adopt abandoned babies and raise them as their own. Unfortunately, abandoning a baby is common practise in the book and many infants were found by the Hwa’s and so the couple would bury these babies. The Hwa’s eventually raise 6 daughters, but once this is discovered by the government their family is deemed illegal. It’s outrageous to read, but as a poor couple they can’t do anything about it. They’re forced to give up all of their daughters and Mrs Hua is left with a permanent longing and “the imagined weight of a small body, warm and soft, in her arms.” My heart broke for the Hwa’s every time they reminisced in memories of their daughters. It was even more heartbreaking when Mrs Hua realised that she was beginning to forget their faces. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I was in the same situation. The Hwa’s eventually settle in the town and become street cleaners. The couple definitely took up residence in my heart.
There is a plot beyond the characters in which a few try to inspire change but for me it was secondary to the daily struggle we witness. Historically, I knew nothing would change so I focused on the emotions more than the possibility of change.
I expected some of the heartbreak that came whilst reading The Vagrants. But I honestly didn’t expect to feel so much empathy for the characters. Their stories are tremendously moving – including Bashi, who I absolutely hated. He had a touching moment after his grandmother’s death and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
The Vagrants is one of those books that never really leaves you. I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for something with depth to read.