I had heard a lot about this book on the blogs last year and then bought it as part of a 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones. I took it on holiday as something different to read after being surrounded by Jane Austen.
It starts in 1979, in an industrial town in China called Muddy River, just a few months after the death of Chairman Mao. It is also the day that a young woman called Gu Shan, is to be executed in the town for losing her faith in Communism. We follow several people through this day and the effect it has on them, her parents, the TV news presenter who has to report on the execution, Nini, a young crippled girl, the seven year old schoolboy Tong, the young layabout Bashi who is looking for a girl, and a few others along the way. The second part of the book moves forward a number of months to the day of a public protest over her death and the repercussions this has on many of them for years to come.
The political situation plays a very tangible backdrop for the stories of these very ordinary people, a lot of whom we can easily relate to. The writing is easy to follow and I was quickly caught up in the characters lives, concerned about where they were going and how it would progress for them. I found Yiyun Li's style captivating and skillful in making the thick grey atmosphere of fear and oppression, and also poverty, very realistic. You can feel it closing in on you as you read, and are grateful that you were not born in such a society.
The shocking elements in the book are told in such a matter of fact way I sometimes re-read them to make sure I had read it right. Without sensationalism we are given quite a few scenes that made me reel, and are more worrying for being almost an aside at times. This was everyday for those in China at this time. But these are recognisable people too, kind people, mean people, ambitious people and those just trying to survive. I particularly liked the Hua's and the baby girls they had tried to adopt along their way, in the absence of any children of their own. I also liked the story that followed Nini, a crippled burdon on her family so therefore an unpaid slave, and her friendship with Bashi. There were some moments of humour too, such as the comments about the women getting perms now that it was no longer thought frivolous.
This is a serious story though, important to be told and well written. It is not light hearted, and it is difficult and harrowing in parts. There were times that I wanted to put it down and do something cheerful for a bit before coming back to it.
An excellent choice for book groups as there is a lot to discuss about the historical context, the writing style and different personal opinions about the book. I am glad I read it, because of its significance on a human level. I was also glad that I was able to leave that world behind at the end, and seek out something more light hearted, so as to counteract the heavy damp cloudy feeling that I had after reaching its last few pages.
You can download a readers guide for The Vagrants by clicking the link.
There is also an interesting interview with Yiyun Li, if you are interested, follow the link.