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.