“The Vagrants” is set in 1979 in Muddy River, a fictional town of 80,000 which Li says resembles her husband's hometown. The Cultural Revolution has ended, but the people of the town are still suffering its effects and struggling to survive. On the day the story opens a counter-revolutionary is to be executed. Gu Shan was a zealous Red Guard member who had been imprisoned ten years earlier when she wrote of her doubts about the revolution to a boyfriend who betrayed her. The townspeople have been let out of their jobs and schools to wave banners as they attend a festive 'denunciation ceremony'. Li then follows the lives of some of Muddy River's residents. These include Kai, an attractive, successful radio announcer who attended first grade with Gu Shan but seems to have made all the right choices in both her professional and personal life. But the two women are more alike than they seem. Kai's life contrasts with many of the less fortunate residents: Gu Shan's grieving parents, an innocent seven-year-old boy and his dog, a crippled young girl whose parents despise her, a spoiled and stupid young man who makes one bad decision after another, and several other characters, as their lives intertwine in the days following the execution.
I suppose this description could make it sound as if this book is simply a series of linked short stories instead of a novel (see Louise Erdrich). But that is definitely not the case. These characters are beautifully interwoven as their stories unfold. Their lives are full of suffering and sadness. They live in a totalitarian state that sanctions brutality and injustice. Some accept their fates stoically; some lash out with terrible violence. Although her first language is Chinese, Yiyun Li writes her fiction in English, because she says that is the language through which her characters speak to her. She has created a haunting and compelling story.