Reviews of The Vagrants
The New Yorker
Li offers both a bleak view of a historical moment when ?people were the most dangerous animals in the world? and a meditation on the act of martyrdom, which is presented both as a duty and as a ?luxury that few could afford.?
Li has invented a provincial town called Muddy River to reflect the tremors produced in a dozen lives. With sometimes unbearable vividness, they tell the history of the time. It's one that, in its treacherous uncertainty, harks back to a previous upheaval planned under Mao: the Cultural Revolution's Red Guard rampage against the regime's own hierarchies.
New York Times Book Review (cover review)
Li pans across this field of suffering with quiet, undistracted patience, assembling, in effect, an anthology of horror stories. Her interest is not in the system itself, but in the costs and consequences of a society gone mad.
Sadness suffuses every page of Yiyun Li’s novel. It is this relentless sadness, the refusal to buy into the contemporary literary religion of redemption, that makes The Vagrants a brave and important book.
Li?s clear, confident narrative moves with grim certitude. The storytelling never falters. Each character is vulnerable, seeking dignity, thwarted by circumstance, recklessness or idealism. Li turns real events into a story of love and death in a time of oppression that, in the end, transcends its particular people, place and moment in time, so it is unforgettable.
Although readers will feel uneasy in the world of "The Vagrants," this exquisitely rendered narrative is a journey that will be impossible to turn from or to easily forget.
Li’s strength is in not imposing easy meaning onto crippling unfairness. She paints a picture of life under totalitarianism that is as much randomly human as it is controlled by government.
Daily Mail (UK)
The Vagrants is as illuminating of the human heart as it is of the historical struggle.
San Francisco Arts
[H]er reconstruction of such a thoroughly dehumanizing world is a way of earning the authority to fully refute it. It's precisely because The Vagrants is so scrupulously humanizing that the book wears its burdens of historical and political significance so well.
The Vagrants is told in an understated and unsentimental voice, with echoes of the elegance of the Irish writer William Trevor, whom the author thanks in her acknowledgement
The Observer (UK)
The Vagrants is an important novel, a requiem for forgotten victims and a careful, honest portrait of what China has been, even as it emerges from the shadow of those years.
The gifted Chinese writer Yiyun Li's devastating first novel is all the more remarkable for the calm, understated telling; the simple, graceful eloquence of the language with its dignified sense of purpose. It is possible to hear the author's voice, thoughtful, considered, barely louder than a whisper, yet no less urgent for that. Oh yes, she has a story and one that she has thought long and hard about. She has exceeded art. Here is a book laden with responsibility; a book about what being human actually amounts to.
The Washington Post
[Li] doesn't condemn or condescend to a single soul here, just makes us see how nerve-racking and soul-killing it must be to live in a despotic nation run by a lot of very high-strung people. For readers who love complex novels about worlds we scarcely understand, "The Vagrants" will be a revelation.
With its controlled understatement and scrupulous and unsparing lucidity, The Vagrants is a work of great moral poise and dignity. These days, few writers can be said to possess gravitas; yet Yiyun Li exudes a seriousness that would be remarkable in one twice her age. As a chronicle of political betrayal under a modern dictatorship, The Vagrants is a minor classic; I have not read such a compelling work in years.
The Guardian (UK)
Li asks difficult questions about people's motivations [...], rarely coming up with simple or reassuring answers. She also creates highly believable characters [...] with deceptively casual-seeming mastery. [She] shows herself to be a writer of great talent in her distribution of sympathy.
New Statesman (UK)
There is an otherness to the writing of the Chinese author Yiyun Li, a sense that her fiction is different from what we are accustomed to. [...] Li is too good a writer to leave you with such a one-dimensional view of the world, however uniquely unsettling its construction may be.
The Courier-Mail (Australia)
Yiyun Li's style effortlessly draws you into this desperately harsh world, with carefully crafted sentences and characters that engage and provoke.
The Times Literary Supplement (London)
The power of precise portraiture underpins Li?s first, dazzlingly successful, foray into novel-writing. [...] like Dickens Li manipulates her third-person narrative to inhabit the mind of each character as she follows the intersecting threads of their collective story.
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.
[The] novelist's skill lies in her adroit handling of the complex interplay between agency and fate. She shows how politics and personalities intersect to propel each of the characters to their individual yet interconnected destinies.
San Francisco Chronicle
[The] world of Yiyun Li's first novel puts a reader in mind of notable others: Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and Kafka's "The Trial," as well as Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," wherein a nameless town's annual ritual proves to be the death by stoning of a randomly chosen citizen.
San Francisco Magazine
In Li's assured hand, the force of individual passions, portrayed collectively, triumphs over the drumbeat of the social collective. The Vagrants is pure plea?sure and a must-read.
The New York Times
Ms. Li presents a desolate yet fully transporting vision of China in the turmoil of the late 1970s [...] She skillfully encapsulates this larger vision into the monstrous, Sino-Dickensian details of Muddy River?s dysfunctional family life.
The Times (London)
In its acute tracing of ambivalences and unexpected twists and turns in people's motivation and behaviour, The Vagrants can put you in mind of Tolstoy or Chekhov. Its scenes of characters ?trapped between practicality and conscience? in an authoritarian society, where frustration routinely finds vent in aggression, insult, sadism and spite, bring to mind fictional bulletins from East European communist regimes. Its 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.
In this most amazing first novel, Yiyun Li has found a way to combine the jeweled precision of her short-story-writer's gaze with a spellbinding vision of the power of the human spirit to not only survive near-annihilation, but to open up a space in the devastation for some kind of healing.
A Balzacian look at one community's suppressed loves and betrayals.
A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression. . . . [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel.
[Li's] meticulousness enriches us with beauties both wild and mundane.
Booklist (Starred Review)
Unflinching and mesmerizing, Li traces the contagion of evil with stunning precision and compassion in this tragic and beautiful novel of conscience.
ELLE (lead review)
Li has poured her prodigious talent into The Vagrants, her powerful debut novel about the people in the modest Chinese city of Muddy River in 1979...Familiarity with Chinese history isn't at all necessary to relate to the grief, pain, confusion, fear, loyalty, suspicion, and love portrayed by the characters in this deeply affecting story.
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
Li's magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim novel centers on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary in the provincial town of Muddy River and spirals outward into a scathing indictment of Communist China... Li records these events dispassionately and with such a magisterial sense of direction that the reader can't help being drawn into the novel, like a sleeper trapped in an anxiety dream.
A harrowing portrait of a woman's execution by an oppressive Chinese regime, and how her death affects an entire provincial town...Li's story has an empathetic, uncannily graceful tone. A complex, downbeat, ultimately admirable tale of a cloaked portion of Chinese history.