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Reviews for The Vagrants

by Yiyun Li

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* In the wake of her first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), Li, who grew up in Beijing, received numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway and Whiting awards. In her staggering first novel, she extends her inquiry into China's particular brand of soul-killing tyranny. It's 1979, and the citizens of the industrial city of Muddy River are feeling festive as they prepare for the public denunciation ceremonies preceding an execution. The condemned is 28-year-old Shan. Once a zealous Red Guard infamous for beating a pregnant woman, who gave birth to a deformed daughter, Nini, Shan began questioning Maoist practices. She is now tortured and killed, her body desecrated. This barbarity ignites a string of crimes and catastrophes. Touched by the conflagration are disabled and much-abused Nini, now 12; two strikingly independent young boys, one scheming, one sweet; Old Hua and his wife, who rescued and raised seven infant girls who had been left outside to die; and Kai, a news announcer who risks all to protest Shan's wrongful death. Unflinching and mesmerizing, Li traces the contagion of evil with stunning precision and compassion in this tragic and beautiful novel of conscience.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2009 Booklist

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.