Oakland author Yiyun Li's debut novel, The Vagrants, begins with a man and his wife lying awake on the morning of their daughter's public execution, which also happens to be the first day of spring. As the woman quietly sobs in their bed, her husband brings her a handkerchief, bearing "a slogan demanding absolute loyalty to the Communist party from every citizen." The year is 1979, and the setting is provincial China. The mood, to say the least, is bleak.
The man has no real consolation to offer his wife, only a glum awareness of the "perilous situation" that might result from being seen crying for their counterrevolutionary daughter, Shan, plus his own bewildered reflection on the heavy fate her life has somehow accumulated in only 28 years.
"Since the age of fourteen, Shan had been wild with passions he could not grasp, first a frantic believer in Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution, and later an adamant nonbeliever and a harsh critic of her generation's revolutionary zeal," Li writes. "In ancient tales she could have been one of those divine creatures who borrow their mothers' wombs to enter the mortal world and make a name for themselves, as a heroine or a devil, depending on the intention of the heavenly powers."
Certainly Shan is a catalyst for the narrative spiral of interwoven stories that constitute The Vagrants, and hardly the only one of its characters to contain epic-seeming contradictions. There is also Kai, Shan's former Red Guard rival, now a radio announcer galvanized by the duty of officiating at Shan's denunciation; Nini, the 12-year-old girl who was disfigured from birth by Shan's kick to her mother's belly; and Bashi, Nini's suitor of sorts, a would-be pedophile all of 19, who "wondered why it had never occurred to Nini's parents to leave her on the riverbank to die when she had been born with that horrible face, or why her parents had kept Nini's sisters as well, when obviously a son was what they were trying to get, baby after baby."
Even presumably peripheral figures register strongly — like the prison guard who holds Shan down so someone else can sever her vocal cords; or the police-station orderly who cleans the blood from the jeep used to transfer her; or the surgeon who harvests her kidneys for the sake of a promotion that will insulate his family with state-sanctioned privilege.
As befits a book excoriating the legacy of communism, no one character emerges as a stand-alone protagonist, yet they're all grimly connected through mutual and variously intentional betrayals — usually in ways that take some time to become fully clear. Much later in the tale, in a deeply wounded outburst that has been building up in him since that chilling first scene, Shan's father finally cracks under the weight of his grief, and cries, "What is revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive?" It's to Li's great credit that she has a considered and compassionate answer for him. It begins with her imagined version of that first spring day in 1979, and contains all the terrible beauty of cascading causes and effects that would become a groundswell in Tiananmen Square ten years later.
Li was born in Beijing in 1972 and witnessed a denunciation like the one her novel describes when she was five; her reconstruction of such a thoroughly dehumanizing world is a way of earning the authority to fully refute it. It's precisely because The Vagrants is so scrupulously humanizing that the book wears its burdens of historical and political significance so well.