February 20, 2011

The Vagrants - Yiyun Li


After I have finished reading books like The Vagrants I always find myself wondering about how such a beautiful, compelling and poetic novel can be made from such traumatic incidents and situations. What makes trauma and horror so readable?

I would never have even bought this book if not for attending The Sydney Writers Festival last year and listening to it's author, Yiyun Li, speak with such unassuming passion about her work. The description of the book just sounded so maudlin to me until I had heard Yiyun Li talk about what had inspired her to write the book and the process she had gone through to finish it - yet another example of finding reading inspiration from the source (and why I love attending writers festivals and the like whenever I can).

The Vagrants starts on March 21 1979 in a provincial town in China called Muddy River. This day is a significant one as it is the day that former Communist devotee, Gu Shan, is to be executed for dissent - an event that the whole town will turn out to watch and celebrate - all except for her parents who are separated by their grief.

The Vagrants introduces and follows many different characters - we are shown their whereabouts and activities on the day of the execution - and in some cases their connections to the young woman about to be killed.

Th execution of Gu Shan is only the beginning - the event reaches each of the main characters in a different way and causes them to take action in their lives and in their town.

The oppressive nature of the Communist regime in China at the time is explored through the characters lives - we are shown very clearly how the personal is political and it is this connection that make this book pure magic for me. I am appalled by the conditions in which the characters live but at the same time I am hopeful that there can be, there will be, change - even when all the evidence seems to indicate differently.

There are some graphic, traumatic events in this book - as to be expected - and as difficult as they were to read at times I could see how essential they were to contributing to the honesty of this book.

I fell in love with Yiyun Li's prose and the way she let her characters speak for themselves - I love books like that, when the author is invisible and you really do feel as though you are hearing the story straight from these "people" in the book.

A powerful and beautiful novel - not to be missed in my eyes.

8 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

It is great to see that you enjoyed this one. I've had it on my wishlist for a while and hope I'll get a copy soon. I hope that Yiyun Li decides to come and talk in the UK some time as I'd love to hear her talk too. Thanks for the review :-)

C.B. James said...

I think I'll look for this one. Your review has me intrigued.

Buried In Print said...

Isn't it amazing? The way that she draws you into the story? The way that the characters' lives overlap and intersect? And the way that, even though parts of it are so incredibly painful that you can hardly bear to read it, that you just can't put it down either, that you're even compelled to re-read parts of it as a witness to the story? I was completely overwhelmed.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

Sounds like a wonderful book and I will definitely keep an eye out for it. I have foudn some great books through recommendations of the Writers Festival. Recently I read The SInking which I heard about at the 2009 festival when the author discussed it in a section about .... hmm..... can't remember she was interesting and the book is great.

A couple of weeks ago I read Every Secret Thing by marie Munkara, an Aboriginal writer that I heard speak at the writers festival last year, and the book was amazing.

Thank goodness for writers festivals!

Steph said...

Oh, so glad to hear you loved this one! I bought it on a whim while out in San Francisco, but haven't made time for it yet. I agree that writer's festivals are pretty awesome and can definitely help us in the search for great books!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

Yiyun Li is an author I really want to read but haven't made time for yet. I'm so glad to hear you loved this one, as it's the one that most intrigues me.

Karen said...

Hi Jackie - She speaks as beautifully as she writes so I hope you get to hear her one day too!

Hi C.B. James - I hope you find it and enjoy it as much as I did.

Hi Buried In Print - It sounds like you and I feel exactly the same way about this one! Just an amazing book.

Hi Becky - I totally agree about writers festivals - so looking forward to the Sydney one already!

Hi Steph - I hope you get around to reading it soon - I'm pretty sure you will love it too...

Hi Carrie - I hope you can get to this one very soon!

Savidge said...

This book has been in my line of sight as a possible read for quite some time, I shall now definitely get it out of the library when I next head in that direction.