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Praise for Prose: The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

By Marilyn Herbert

Last night, I reviewed Yiyun Li’s haunting book, The Vagrants, at a presentation at the Council House (4700 Bathurst St.) in Toronto. The story is about China in the year just after Mao’s death, and Li looks at the effects and ramifications of the entirety of Mao’s presence and rule over the country. Mao gave China a unique global identity — The People’s Republic of China — but with it, he destroyed each citizen’s individual identity. At the same time, he destroyed their future.

Here’s a quick look at the story:

YiYun Li

The novel opens as the Gu family prepares for their daughter Shan’s public execution, and the reader is taken into the streets and homes of the townspeople as they get ready for the obligatory denunciation ceremony that will precede Shan’s actual death. Shan has been condemned as an enemy of the state — but it was not always so. For years, Shan had been a loyal servant, a member of Mao’s Red Guard, but something in her changed and she began to speak out against the totalitarian environment of the day. We never meet Shan directly, but instead follow the characters as they each revolve around her on this auspicious day.

The interesting question is why a book about Mao’s China is a current must-read. While this novel appears to be a denunciation of a well-known history, it is not a simple accusation. Perhaps Li is exploring how to escape the trap of time and place. China is at a crossroads between wanting to control its own affairs and people and wanting to become a member of the global community.

I think what Li’s book brings to the discussion is this: by looking to the past, perhaps we can better understand China’s struggle with itself. As world events continue to change so drastically, this will be a fascinating country to watch.


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