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The Vagrants: A Novel (Paperback)

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In luminous prose, award-winning author Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of unforgettable characters who are forced to make moral choices, and choices for survival, in China in the late 1970s. 

Shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 

Morning dawns on the provincial city of Muddy River. A young woman, Gu Shan, a bold spirit and a follower of Chairman Mao, has renounced her faith in Communism. Now a political prisoner, she is to be executed for her dissent. Her distraught mother, determined to follow the custom of burning her only child’s clothing to ease her journey into the next world, is about to make another bold decision. Shan’s father, Teacher Gu, who has already, in his heart and mind, buried his rebellious daughter, begins to retreat into memories. Neither of them imagines that their daughter’s death will have profound and far-reaching effects, in Muddy River and beyond.

In luminous prose, Yiyun Li weaves together the lives of these and other unforgettable characters, including a serious seven-year-old boy, Tong; a 
crippled girl named Nini; the sinister idler Bashi; and Kai, a beautiful radio news announcer who is married to a man from a powerful family. Life in a world of oppression and pain is portrayed through stories of resilience, sacrifice, perversion, courage, and belief. We read of delicate moments and acts of violence by mothers, sons, husbands, neighbors, wives, lovers, and more, as Gu Shan’s execution spurs a brutal government reaction.

Writing with profound emotion, and in the superb tradition of fiction by such writers as Orhan Pamuk and J. M. Coetzee, Yiyun Li gives us a stunning novel that is at once a picture of life in a special part of the world during a historic period, a universal portrait of human frailty and courage, and a mesmerizing work of art.

Praise for The Vagrants

“She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle.”W Magazine

“A Balzacian look at one community’s suppressed loves and betrayals.”—Vogue

“A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression. . . . [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel.”O Magazine

About the Author


Yiyun Li is the author of four works of fiction—Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers to watch. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and their two sons.

Praise For…


“Yiyun Li has written a book that is as important politically as it is artistically. The Vagrants is an enormous achievement.”—Ann Patchett, author of Run

“Every once in a while a voice and a subject are so perfectly matched that it seems as if this writer must have been born to write this book. The China that Yiyun Li shows us is one most Americans haven’t seen, but her tender and devastating vision of the ways human beings love and betray one another would be recognizable to a citizen of any nation on earth.”—Nell Freudenberger, author of The Dissident

“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, author of Away

“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, author of The Welsh Girl

“There is a magnetic small-town universality to The Vagrants…but this is small-town universality with a difference. That difference is Communist China. The town isn’t small; it only feels that way, as a provincial city where everyone seems to know his neighbor’s business.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Yiyun Li’s extraordinary debut novel [is] beautifully paced, exquisitely detailed. . . . An amazing technical achievement… . . . Li’s genius lies in her ability to blend fact with an endlessly imaginative sense of the interplay of forces that powered the massive shift in the social order that led to Tiananmen Square. . . . 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.”Chicago Tribune

“She bridges our world to the Chinese world with a mind that is incredibly supple and subtle.”W Magazine

“A Balzacian look at one community’s suppressed loves and betrayals.”—Vogue

“A sweeping novel of struggle, survival, and love in the time of oppression. . . . [an] illuminating, morally complex, and symphonic novel.”O Magazine

“Magnificent.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Li has poured her prodigious talent into The Vagrants. . . . 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. . . . The Vagrants has a confident, democratic style that gives a distinct voice to every character. ‘Growing up in China, you learn you can never trust one person's words,’ Li says. ‘People's stories don't always match.’ But one thing is clear: Li's stories matter.”Elle

Product Details
ISBN: 9780812973341
ISBN-10: 0812973348
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Publication Date: February 16th, 2010
Pages: 368
Language: English