“Seeing is not as good as staying blind,” Teacher Gu said, quoting an ancient poem.
“We’ve been blind all our lives,” said Mrs. Gu. “Why don’t you want to open your eyes and see the facts?”
Yiyun Li’s debut novel The Vagrants is potent and sobering. “The light from the streetlamps was weak, but the eastern sky had taken on a hue of bluish white like that of an upturned fish belly.” is Li at her most effusive. Otherwise the language is sparse, creating image by image this inconsequential Chinese city and it’s array of characters.
The theme, apparently based on real events, is not dissimilar to that related by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (though Li’s style shares little with Solzhenitsyn) and other casualties of totalitarian oppression. The spine-chilling fear that sets family members against each other and induces spite towards other members of the community is common.
The Vagrants is filled with a pronounced cast of memorable, often unappealing characters and strong sense of place. Though some of Li’s protagonists are inherently unsympathetic, her skill is to enable us to find compassion where initially it seems unlikely.
Any compassion is proved futile as there is little redemption in The Vagrants. The novel’s denouement is inevitable with the layering of metaphor building the tension, almost unbearably.
The man turned to Tong and hissed. “Don’t wake up my hedgehog.”
Tong recognised the young man, though he did not know his name. “Don’t worry,” Tong said. “He’s hibernating so you won’t wake him up by speaking.”
“Spring’s already here,” the man said.
“But it’s not warm enough for the hedgehog yet,” Tong said.
The powerless hedgehog shares a similar fate to the protestors.
Although the story is harrowing, there is dark humour, particularly in the dialogue between Bashi and Nini, the book’s strongest characters.
The book is a first-rate contemporary novel; as a debut novelist Yiyun Li shows considerable promise.