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The Vagrants [Paperback]

Yiyun Li
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Sep 2009

The much-anticipated first novel from the Guardian First Book Award-winning Chinese writer.

In the provincial town of Muddy Waters in China, a young woman named Gu Shan is sentenced to death for her loss of faith in Communism. She is twenty-eight years old and has already spent ten years in prison. The citizens stage a protest after her death and, over the following six weeks, the town goes through uncertainty, hope and fear until eventually the rebellion is brutally suppressed. They are all taken on a painful journey, from one young woman's death to another.

We follow the pain of Gu Shan's parents, the hope and fear of the leaders of the protest and their families. Even those who seem unconnected to the tragedy – an eleven-year-old boy seeking fame and glory, a nineteen-year-old village idiot in love with a young and deformed girl, an old couple making a living by scavenging the town's garbage cans – are caught up in a remorseless turn of events.

Yiyun Li's novel is based on the true story which took place in China in 1979.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (3 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007196652
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007196654
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 57,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Yiyun Li has written a book that is as important politically as it is artistically. "The Vagrants" is an enormous achievement.' Ann Patchett

'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

'A masterpiece … "The Vagrants" can put you in mind of Tolstoy or Chekhov…Its mass rallies wouldn't be out of place in Margaret Atwood's dystopia, "The Handmaid's Tale"…Most of all, though, its shut-in, shabby world of party tyranny, nonstop surveillance and loudspeakers spouting propaganda into the smoky air resembles Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" – with a grim twist: Orwell's novel envisaged a nightmare that could happen; Li's describes one that did.' Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

'With its controlled understatement and scrupulous and unsparing lucidity, "The Vagrants" is a work of great moral poise and dignity. As a chronicle of political betrayal under a modern dictatorship, "The Vagrants" is a minor classic; I have not read such a compelling work in years.' Ian Thomson, Independent

‘An eloquent, brooding novel.’ Independent on Sunday

'This is a book of immense power and it will leave you reeling.' New Statesman

'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

About the Author

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and Guardian First Book Award. Her novel, The Vagrants, was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Raw and powerful 17 Sep 2009
This is definitely an author to watch - she writes in a sparse style that is both raw and powerful. Her characters are varied and strong, interacting with one another in constantly interconnecting circles. The build-up of the narrative was excellent, leading us inexorably to the final denouement.

The book is set in 1979, after the death of Mao. It is based around a factual event - the denunciation and execution of 28 year old Gu-Shan, who has been accused of counterrevolutionary activity and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment followed by death. This event affected many people in the town of Muddy River - from Shan's parents through to the radio announcer responsible for whipping up the crowds, to a young, deformed girl who unknowingly watches while the Shan's vocal chords are cut to prevent her from speaking out. As the ripples travel further, other residents of the town become drawn in. A movement to clear Shan's name begins to build momentum and the fall-out from this has far reaching effects.

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly talented author 17 Feb 2010
Yiyun Li's sublime collection of short stories, her debut, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers", won more awards than most prolific authors would be chuffed to bits with for their entire output. "The Vagrants" is her first novel. It follows the interwoven lives of several outsider-type characters living in a small provincial town, following the execution of a young woman for anti-government sentiments. Rather than plop some lame, unhelpful superlative in this space, I urge you to read this magnificent, moving novel by a truly talented author.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional, illuminating book 14 Nov 2009
It may seem odd to describe this book as beautifully written when it is about the execution of a young woman as a "counterrevolutionary" and the dire political consequences suffered by those who protest against the execution. This is a novel about fear and poverty and oppression, and about injustice, yet The Vagrants is perceptive, incisive, completely absorbing and, yes, beautifully written, illuminating the thoughts and motivations of simple village people who care about justice. It is written in a way that makes even the simplest and most marginalised of people of the town of Muddy River significant and worth caring about.

I was drawn in from the start. Every character in Muddy River from teacher Gu and his wife, the parents of the executed prisoner who are devastated by their daughter's disgrace, to Nini, the deformed child in a poor family who is able to find love amid the turmoil, as well as Bashi, a strange child-man who himself admits has a screw loose, are all perfectly rendered, with minute, telling details that bring out their oddness but also their humanity. However poor or downtrodden, Yiyun Li is able to convince us that these people matter.

Political oppression is a significant theme. The Vagrants is set in the 1970s, era of the Democracy Wall movement which spurred China's first student dissidents. The stirring of dissent, the courage to question the official version of events, yet the consequences of doing so is the tragedy of Muddy River. The execution is based on true events but Yiyun Li's talent lies in helping us realise that there are many towns like Muddy River throughout China. An exceptional, illuminating book and an author to watch.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Left me speechless. 20 Mar 2011
By Tommy Dooley TOP 100 REVIEWER
This is Yiyun Li's second book, she won the Guardian First Book Award for her debut `A Thousand Years of Good Prayers',A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and after reading this I am getting that one next. This is based in 1979 Communist China in a place called `Muddy River'.

It tells of the unfolding events around the imprisonment, torture, denouncement and ultimate execution of a young girl called Gu Shan. She actively took part in the `Cultural Revolution' with gusto and brutality before an epiphany made her see the light of day and become a free thinker or as it is termed in China `a counterrevolutionary'. Please do not think the prior sentence is a plot spoiler as all of that gives us the setting for the events in the town and how the actions of that one girl affect so many of the other inhabitants.

Li writes from the perspectives of numerous characters and in such a way that all of their idiosyncrasies come out quite naturally. She even relates the feeling of a little boy's dog, who is affectionately called Ear. They all have interesting names and the cultural divide from the West is almost impossible to breach when you read of the stoicism and home spun Confucian like wisdom and advice. Most of which is centred around the fact that life is not fair so you might as well get use to it.

Li writes with a fluidity that draws you in and wills you to carry on reading, she has a knack of dropping the bombshell when you least expect it in an almost unassuming way, much like some of Cormac McCarthy's work. However, unlike him she is not poetic, the charm comes from the people in the story and the way she relates them. One of the most satisfying and moving books I have read - highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By BookWorm TOP 500 REVIEWER
A very strong first novel which paints a vivid and often disturbing picture of life in Communist China after the Cultural Revolution. Set in a provincial town following the execution of a young woman, 'The Vagrants' follows a disparate group of characters all affected by the uprising that follows the death of the counterrevolutionary. It's a cleverly constructed, well paced and emotionally powerful story with fascinating characters. Of all the novels I've read recently set in China during the excesses of Communism, this is the one that most brings home what it is like to live under a repressive, all-powerful regime.

Yet despite the grittiness of the political and social issues underlying the story, it isn't bleak. It is full of the warmth and colour of people doing their best in difficult circumstances, of small kindnesses as well as painful betrayals. The ending worked well and I found the story arcs of many of the characters unexpected and interesting to follow. The political content of the story is never dull and never takes over, rather the political message is carried through showing the effects of the system, rather than lecturing about them.

A very good novel from an author that I'm sure we'll hear more from.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating look into a hidden world
This book is written in a wonderfully understated style which belies the passion and suffering of the characters whose interconnected lives we follow. Read more
Published 18 months ago by thetruthshallsetyefree
4.0 out of 5 stars damning panaroma of China's not so distant madness
Through the eyes of a diverse range of residents of a small city in China, this powerful book shows how the terror and madness of totalitarian China could destroy lives - young or... Read more
Published on 3 Nov 2011 by Ben P
5.0 out of 5 stars Nobody should be punished because of what he thinks
The main theme of this book is political dissidence in a country where a small bunch of people has an (open or hidden) power monopoly, like here in China after the Cultural... Read more
Published on 14 Aug 2011 by Luc REYNAERT
5.0 out of 5 stars Totally engaging
This is a wonderful and tragic novel which grips from start to finish. There is a lot of believable detail and the characters are well-developed. Read more
Published on 20 May 2011 by james carmichael
2.0 out of 5 stars Dissapointing
I have to say I was quite dissapointed by this book. Maybe it was because there were too many characters and I just couldn't get into it. Read more
Published on 13 Mar 2011 by Elimb
5.0 out of 5 stars An important novel about China
Any reader interested in post-Mao politics in China will find this novel engrossing. It focuses on the lives of certain residents in Muddy River after 1975. Read more
Published on 5 Jan 2011 by Caz Mysteries
5.0 out of 5 stars haunting, dark, full of irony and painfully realistic
Many books have been written about people's lives affected by the cultural revolution in communist China, but Yiyun Li's portrayals stood out for me. Read more
Published on 19 Nov 2010 by geek in heels
4.0 out of 5 stars Important and Great Read
This is a touh book in may ways, not for the faint hearted or light reading. Having said that it is a great book, eye opening at the least. Read more
Published on 30 Sep 2009 by Mr. M. Murphy
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