Muddy River, a small provincial Chinese city, is the setting for this intense and thought-provoking debut novel from Yiyun Li, who was raised in Beijing. The year is 1979, 10 years before the violent protests at Tiananmen Square. The seeds of discontent have already been planted in Muddy River—The Vagrants opens with the execution of a young woman, Shan Gu, formerly a supporter of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution, now a vocal counterrevolutionary.
Li deftly examines the effects of Shan's execution on her engrossing cast of characters, whose lives are interwoven both by proximity and by emotional bonds. Shan's father, a teacher, has spent years apologizing for his daughter's actions, telling himself "a child's fault is the father's fault.‚" Her mother mourns her only child deeply and harbors a dangerous belief that Shan had a right to vocalize her convictions.
Across the city live Kai, a former actress, now the Katie Couric of Muddy River, and her husband, the son of powerful government employees. Kai attended school with Shan, and has recently become involved with the counterrevolutionary group, unbeknownst to her husband or in-laws. Aware of the burgeoning "Democratic Wall‚" movement in Beijing, this group distributes leaflets in Muddy River and organizes a petition in protest of Shan's execution. Each of Li's characters is swept up in this counterrevolutionary epidemic in a variety of ways; she poignantly portrays how the ripples from the execution of one villager ultimately affect them all.
Li received numerous awards for her 2005 short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and a Whiting Award. Her debut novel is both a stunning encapsulation of China in the decade before Tiananmen Square and a perceptive portrayal of individuals who took part in those historic events, willingly or otherwise.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.