Feature

Novel of the week: The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li's "amazing" first novel takes place in 1979, and captures the wrenching experiences and lives of characters at a time when China's communist government felt threatened by political protest.

by Yiyun Li (Random House, $25)

“Outsiders are often the best storytellers,” said Eliza Griswold in Bookforum. Except for Kai, a honey-voiced propagandist for the Chinese government, the various heroes and heroines in Yiyun Li’s arresting first novel are “marginalized misfits.” As inhabitants of a provincial Chinese city in 1979, they stand as compelling witnesses to a culture in “the death throes of totalitarianism.” When the book begins, a schoolteacher and his wife are bracing for the execution of their daughter. A crippled child is eating the paste meant for the execution’s posters. The “village idiot” is searching a riverbank for abandoned babies.

Li deftly links these vignettes using “touches of melodrama and well-timed accidents of fate,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. A personal tie between Kai and the condemned woman, for instance, produces “a quietly volatile situation in a book that is full of them.”

To merely note the author’s “sweeping indictment” of communism doesn’t quite capture the “stunning complexity of Li’s achievement,” said Conan Putnam in the Chicago Tribune. This “amazing” work combines wrenching individual stories with a “spellbinding vision” of history’s march.

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