The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
Finished: Mar. 4, 2009
First Published: Feb. 3, 2009
Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction
Reason for Reading: I received a review copy for the publisher, Random House Canada.
The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket.
Comments: This book is a story of ordinary Chinese citizens in 1979, China. A year in which people are still getting used to the Communist regime after the break-up of the Cultural Revolution. Those who were staunch Red Guards during the rule Mao have been take care of and anyone still harbouring those or any feelings other than communism are antirevolutionists. The book opens upon the day that the Gu's daughter, Shan, now 28 after spending 10 years in prison for her actions during the rule of Mao is to be executed for her writings found in her diary in her cell.
The story is mostly one of the characters who knew Gu Shan, those affected by either her life or her death, and those who live upon her street. It is a story of the horrors of political indoctrination, crimes against the people, ordinary people trying to live their lives, and of love. Love, both gone sour from years of hardship and burning romance between two very unlikely people.
What a beautiful book! Very well written, continuously moving from one character's experiences to an other's. A slow-paced plot, the book encompasses only one year, but
a moving look into the minds of various Chinese mindsets from traditional superstition to staunch communist to fierce activists. I loved every one of the eclectic characters but especially Nini and Bashi, two young people who slowly become more and more the main focus as the book progresses.
I love reading about China and this brief period of the seventies is one that, historically, I haven't read of before. I found it fascinating as well as tragic and heart-wrenching. While slow-paced as mentioned above, it is not a slow read and I found myself turning pages as fast as I could. By no means a happy story but a dark and heart-rending one with glimpses of hope.
This is the author's first novel, having previously published an award winning collection of short stories, and I most certainly will be keeping an eye out for her next one. Highly recommended especially to those who enjoy character driven novels.