I was in the midst of reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen as I read my way through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a good book, but intense. After a nightmare involving a Columbine-like incident at the Omaha Public Library (remember, just a dream!), I realized that I needed a break. So I took home “The Vagrants.”
It wasn’t that much of a break.
Here’s what I wrote in a review in Visual Bookshelf:
“I chose this book because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I expect that many people would consider it depressing–I found it so, too.
Li weaves together the lives of several people in the [fictional Chinese] town of Muddy River in the late 1970’s. Widespread poverty, the sense of lingering loss from the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing scheming to get ahead without getting caught, combine to destroy trust and love…or maybe trust and love don’t exist much here. It feels like nobody has a haven, either in a place, or in a person’s arms.
And I think that’s the author’s point…that things became so crazy in China that the bonds that hold people together in the best ways, through family, friendships, and rewarding work, are broken. And “The Vagrants” leads us to face the dismal result. Not an easy read, but sometimes we ought to face and recognize evil.”
What I’d add to that is that Li does a wonderful job of introducing a cast of characters, and then interweaving their lives. These aren’t necessarily people that we’ll come to love and trust and hope the best for, but they are distinct individuals, well-drawn. She reveals their particular vulnerabilities, and we learn how they’ll suffer for them.
I’d recommend this to readers who are interested in China, especially on the impact of recent politics there, who love a novel with interweaving plots, and who don’t insist on a happy ending.