February 10, 2009

Review: The Vagrants

The Vagrants
by Yiyun Li

"A day of equality it was, or so it had occurred to Teacher Gu many times when he had pondered the date, the spring equinox, and again the thought came to him: Their daughter's life would end on this day, when neither the sun not its shadow reigned."

Because I could not say it better, I present you with the cover copy:
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 Monument, 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.

Whoa! What a book! The above blurb makes it sound heavy or political but I was surprised at how easy it was to whip through 100 pages. It touches on the politics of the time but it is not about them and only gives enough to make the story move forward in an engaging fashion. It is really about the execution of a counterrevolutionary and how that affects each person in the town of Muddy River. My understanding was never hindered by my ignorance of the history of China in the 70s. It was written to be accessible to everyone.

This book is a character-lover's dream. There are so many different persons involved in the story that the reader would be wise to keep a list nearby to keep the names straight. What was amazing is that each character was completely different from every other character. They all had unique eyes with which to look at the world. They all felt real and interesting. Ms. Li must be a great observer of people to have conjured up all these personalities. They are brilliant.

Be prepared for an unpleasant story. The lives of the town's people are hard. Most of the characters are bottom of the barrel lower-class with no hope of changing their situations. The subject matter is depressing with a capital D. Just when I thought something good was going to happen to someone, it all unraveled leaving things worse off than when they started. Yet it was all presented in a way that felt authentic.

In case you need it spelled out, the book was phenomenal. I recommend it to those who like their literature to really say something. It is not necessarily for the faint of heart. There are a scene or two that are grueling to get through but it is worth the effort.

Buy this book at Amazon.


Zibilee said...

This sounds like a book I would really love to read. I may have stayed away from the book having just read the cover blurb, because it sounded a little too political. Thanks for clearing that up and for the interesting review, I am going to be on the lookout for this one!

Anonymous said...

This does sound good, but I don't like too many characters in a book. That can get too confusing for me.

Leah said...

I love the sound of this book and it has made it onto my wishlist. I will definately look out for it. Thanks for the review.

Amy said...

I"ve been wanting to read this one and this review sealed the deal! Wish I could read it right now! :)

Petunia said...

I'm so glad to have positively influenced so many to read this book. It gives a window of insight into the actualities of communism that you could never get reading a history book. I hope to see it winning awards by the end of the year.