The Vagrants

Yiyun Li

In the provincial town of Muddy Waters in China, a young woman named Gu Shan is sentenced to death for her loss of faith in Communism. She is twenty-eight years old and has already spent ten years in prison. The citizens stage a protest after her death and, over the following six weeks, the town goes through uncertainty, hope, and fear until eventually the rebellion is brutally suppressed.

We follow the pain of Gu Shan’s parents, the hope and fear of the leaders of the protest and their families. Even those who seem unconnected to the tragedy – an eleven-year-old boy seeking fame and glory, a nineteen-year-old village idiot in love with a young and deformed girl, and old couple making a living by scavenging the town’s garbage cans – are caught up in remorseless turn of events.

Yiyun Li’s novel is based on the true story which took place in China in 1979.

Reviews of The Vagrants

    • ‘This novel – a masterpiece of desolate intensity – reads like reportage from hell…The novel is short on time but cast in scope…The Vagrants can put you in mind of Tolstoy or Chekhov…It’s mass rallies wouldn’t be out of place in Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. . Most of all, though, its shut-in, shabby world of party tyranny, nonstop surveillance and loudspeakers spouting propaganda into the smoky air resembles Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – with a grim twist: Orwell’s novel envisaged a nightmare that could happen; Li’s describes one that did.’ Peter Kemp, Sunday Times.
    • ‘Li creates highly believable characters…with deceptive casual-seeming mastery…The Vagrants is filled with violence and horror…but Li finds room for some humour here and there. It’s also written in a brisk, unpretentious way, with very few moments of calculated pathos in spite of the heartrending material on offer.’ Guardian
    • ‘The power of precise portraiture underpins Li’s first, dazzlingly successful, foray into novel-writing.” TLS
    • ‘This is a book of immense power and it will leave you reeling.’ New Statesman
    • ‘Yiyun Li has written a book that is as important politically as it is artistically. ‘The Vagrants’ is an enormous achievement.’ Ann Patchett
    • ‘This is a book of loss and pain and fear that manages to include such unexpected tenderness and grace notes that, just as one can bear it no longer, one cannot put it down. This is not an easy read, only a necessary and deeply moving one.’ Amy Bloom
    • ‘A starkly moving portrayal of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, this book weaves together the stories of a vivid group of characters all struggling to find a home in their own country. Yiyun Li writes with a quiet, steady force, at once stoic and heartbreaking.’ Peter Ho Davies
    • ‘Li’s novel showcases her superb Dickensian eye…A powerful first novel’.’ Observer