Though the characters are fictional, the world it portrays was once real (1979 China, two years after Mao's death). The book is loosely based upon a true story. However, the name of the city and names of characters are all fictional (except for the distant city of Beijing and the former leader, Mao). I have heard of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution under Mao, and was under the impression that things started getting better after Mao's death. They may have, but it was a long slow process, and not very visible in this story. Keep in mind that this story takes place after Nixon's visit, so the USA and China had diplomatic ties at this time. I mention this not because USA-China relations play any role in this story, but rather to show that China was not an international pariah when these things happened.
The author was born and grew up in a China that portrayed their heroes as being perfect. Therefore, that must be why she goes out of her way to portray her characters as being less than virtuous and a bit short of perfection. The novel introduces us to a broad cast of characters who are mostly poor common people from a small City of minimal political importance.
A combination of sadness and attention to minutiae of daily life and nature permeates the novel. Glue for a poster announcing a denunciation provides nourishment for a hungry girl. Dreams of a missing granddaughter are compared to the "... blossom in the mirror or a full moon in the river." The meadows where female babies are abandoned to freeze in winter is a place where "...white nameless flowers bloom all summer." The glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow is weighted down by the foreboding of violence that may strike at any moment. Most readers will know enough about recent Chinese history to know that the ending cannot be too happy. Suspense builds as the reader nears the end of the book because the reader has now familiar with the cast of characters and cares about their future. All I can say without being a spoiler is that there are winners and losers. The following quote from the book (from a letter of reflection to an ex-wife) summarizes the lives being portrayed:... what marks our era is the moaning of our bones crushed beneath the weight of empty words. There is no beauty in this crushing, and there is, alas, no escape for us now, or ever."
(Then, starting over after quoting some Buddhist scriptures)... "We become prisoners of our own beliefs, with no one free to escape such a fate, and this, my dearest friend, is the only democracy offered by the world."
This novel describes some grisly medical and surgical practices. Did (or do) those practices actually exist in China?
I've often wondered how a society can recover from the craziness of the "Cultural Revolution" that China experienced in the 60s. How do neighbors relate to their former persecutors? The answer in this story is with slow deliberation. An irony of Chinese history is that the truly lasting Cultural Revolution didn't occur under Mao, but rather occurred after his death when their economy transformed from strict communism into a controlled capitalism.
I wonder if this novel can do for China what Kite Runner did for Afghanistan? Both books were written by gifted first time novelists. (Liyun did write a previously published book of short stories.) Kite Runner slowly became a best seller several years after being published. Perhaps the same can happen to The Vagrants.
Our country is blessed to have the best and brightest young people, who have fled repression in their native countries, come here, learn our language, and then write terrific novels about the conditions they left. We are truly blessed.
I found the following link to an audio interview with the author Yiyun Li:
In addition, the following link is to a 55-minute video of Yiyun Li reading an excerpt from the book, being interviewed, and answering questions from the audience.
It is from this video that I learned that the book is based on a true story. (Warning: the video link contains what may be a spoiler for some readers.)
I wanted to give the book five stars because it is a book that should be read. It provides a unique look into the recent history of China. However, I ended up giving it only four stars because of the generally sad mood conveyed to the reader.