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The Vagrants


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About the Author

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing, China, and came to the United States in 1996. She is the recipient of several prizes for her writing and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Li's stories have been published in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, USA, with her husband and their two sons.


Following her short story collection Thousand Years of Good Prayers (LJ 9/1/05), Li's debut novel interestingly details life in the town of Muddy River, China, in 1979. Assorted characters are gradually introduced as stories unfold and revolve around the denunciation ceremony, execution, and attempted retribution for Shan, the daughter of retired Teacher Gu and his wife. Here, Li's central character, 19-year-old Bashi, intermingles with Old Kwen, a 56-year-old bachelor, as well as that of a young boy named Tong and an outcast 12-year-old girl named Nini. One of six sisters, Nini is plagued with severe birth deformities, but she and Bashi soon develop a friendship and tender bond that eventually leads Bashi to ask Nini to become his child bride. Added to this story are darker moments, like the sexual mutilation of Shan's body by Old Kwen, which Bashi tries to expose. Limited passages detailing particular scenes are not for the squeamish but are likely no worse than those found in gritty crime novels. Like other works set during this period in China, the novel is realistically filled with elements of inequality and despair. Content aside, Li's writing can be likened to that of Ha Jin, as she is a talented storyteller who is able to juggle multiple story lines and lead the reader through numerous highs and lows in this character-driven work. Well written and recommended for larger fiction collections, particularly public and academic libraries strong in Asian literature.--Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

'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

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--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. (Feb.) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

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