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by Yiyun Li
Reviewed by Rachel Hayes

Beijing-born Yiyun Lee published her first book, a collection of short stories, in 2005, followed by her first novel, The Vagrants, in 2009 — both written in English, a language she spoke little of when she arrived in the USA in 1996, in her mid‒twenties. Having grown up without the benefit of freedom of expression, she associated Chinese with repression and censorship and only found her writer's voice as she learned English.

The Vagrants is set in Muddy River, a fictional city in the Chinese provinces, in 1979 — in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the country is being swayed by the democratic wall movement in Beijing, a popular movement calling for more openness and democracy which paved the way for Tianamen Square a decade later. The novel opens on the morning that local woman Gu Shan is to be executed as a dissenter; a fervent supporter of Chairman Mao in her youth, Shan later turned against the Communist Party and was branded a "counterrevolutionary", having been denounced by her boyfriend.

Gu Shan's gruesome execution sets off a chain of reactions throughout the city and beyond. Through a well‒portrayed set of varied local characters Yiyun Li gently shows us the possible ways of reacting to a repressive regime which strives to deprive its citizens of all individuality and dignity. Some (Han and his parents) adapt to the system and thrive, momentarily, at least; some rage against it and sooner or later pay the price (Kai, Jilian, Mrs. Gu); some, like Bashi the drifter, think they are cleverer than the system and therefore immune, until brutally proven wrong; others (Teacher Gu) try not to attract attention to themselves and retreat into memories. For the first hundred pages or so I worried that I couldn't get close to any of the characters, until I realised that the real protagonist is the city of Muddy River as a whole; the individuals make up that whole. Yet at the same time the characters are very human, and it is this which provides the only relief in this bleak yet beautiful novel.

Amongst all these characters, who is right? Who is wrong? It all depends on your point of view. Even Gu Shan, whom we never meet, is not cast unambiguously as heroine or villain. There are several characters who could be considered to undertake heroic acts — yet even the nature of heroism is called into question. Is standing up for your principles really an act of heroism when it comes at the cost of literally everything else in your life? This is a crazy world in which self-sacrifice is pointless, and in which even the innocent acts of a child can have tragic consequences.

In an interview I read recently Yiyun Li said that she believes that the criterion for a good short story is whether the reader remembers it six weeks later. If the same criterion can be applied to a novel, I suspect that The Vagrants will prove to be extraordinarily good.