Thursday, June 30, 2016

"The Vagrants" by Yiyun Li

Two years ago, I read Farhana's review of The Vagrants at Digesting the Words- even then, I'd owned this book for a long time. I noted I wanted to read it soon, but somehow it got forgotten among the many (many) tomes that comprise my pile. Earlier this year, I decided to reorganize the unread books in my stash in an attractive manner that I thought might catch my attention better than having them sit in the windowless room that is my library. The Vagrants was one of the books I put at eye level on the shelf, and eventually it wore me down enough to pick it up.

Historical fiction is usually hard to crack into for me- the first fifty pages are an effort to acquaint myself with all the characters the author decided needed to be included. Although this book has many characters and points of view, it was easy to tell each of them apart- each had a distinct voice, reminding me somewhat of Alice Hoffman's penchant for including the main players of a village in a book. Although it's set in a city, it definitely is given the small town feel, where everyone seems to at least know of everyone else.

The Plot (As Seen on Goodreads):
'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.'

Usually with books like this one, I edit the blurb from Goodreads because most of the few paragraphs I generally find overly gushy about the author's writing. This is one of those rare cases where I don't delete those large swaths- Yiyun Li deserves and earned that praise of her writing style with this book. I think the best word for her writing style is fluid- you aren't tempted to skip or skim anything, because most of the paragraphs in the book are necessary, and written in a way where you want to read and absorb every word.

I had preconceptions about the plot, being it's set in late 1970s Communist era China, but most of my ideas about what the plot might be like were wrong. It's less about the politics, and more about the people/characters, which I do feel is the right way to go about it. I do like idea books, but generally my five star ratings go to books where I felt I was the character, or identified with them. More than that, I got a feel for the changing atmosphere of the city of Muddy River as the book went on- as little as I've traveled physically, I do feel like this book took me to China.

The Vagrants is an elegantly written book that leaves you feeling satisfied with most aspects of it. However, some of the characters were so predatory and chilling, it was a bit difficult to enjoy reading about their exploits. Nonetheless, for the experienced adult reader, The Vagrants offers an alarming, yet somehow complementary look at the people of China during that timeframe.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a fluid historical that evokes a multitude of feelings.

Content: Ages 18+ for disturbing scenes not limited to violence (including to animals) or sexual assault.

Page Count: 349 pages


  1. Oh I was so interested in your review, as this was a fascinating time in history, but then I got down to your advisory and I have to pass. Knowing that here is animal abuse and sexual abuse is just too much for me to handle. But I do thank you for highlighting a different type of book than what's hyped lately.

    By the way, new follower here. Found you @ Musings of a Bookish Kitty, one of my fave bloggers, and was excited to read some of your previous posts. I love that you know who you are (an old soul) what you like (animals and vintage items) and probably share some medical issues with me-- don't take that the wrong way (!)-not happy that anyone has medical issues, but I like it when I find a person who understands what I live with (I have fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, early-onset osteoarthritis, facets arthritis- of the spine, herniated discs-- lumbar and cervial, nerve damage to hands and feet, undx'd Reynauds, etc.

    Enjoy your week ahead!

    1. Yeah, that's why I decided to do an "Age Advisory" section in the first place- it doesn't matter what age you are, but if you don't like reading about certain things, you shouldn't have to. Most books won't tell you they have gritty subject matter (and I was a little surprised with this one's), but I always try to remember and inform, just in case someone wants to know.

      I have a gamut of things wrong with me, but I think fibromyalgia is probably the root cause of some of my other stuff- the fibro club isn't exactly a club you want to belong to.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Rita! Hope your weekend is great (and flare free), too!
      ~Litha Nelle

  2. This has been on my shelf since 2009. Unread. Terrible, terrible. Such an intersting time period. I am glad you liked this one. I appreciate the warning. I like to be prepared when it's especially bad because I can get rather emotional, especially when it comes to animal abuse and sexual assault. I'll have to be in the right frame of mind for this one, I think.

    1. I can't recall exactly how long I've had it, but it's been more than 3 years. I agree- it's hard not to react emotionally, especially given the content of this book. It's not a "sad" book, but it isn't a happy book either- it's an unusually solemn summer read for me.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Wendy!
      ~Litha Nelle

  3. This really sounds interesting. Sometimes I get in a mood for Historical Fiction, not very often, but I do. I think I will keep this book in mind. Thanks for the review.

    1. It is an interesting book, if you don't mind the content (which was a little eyebrow raising, even for me). I'm glad you liked my review!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, La La!
      ~Litha Nelle


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