Yiyun Li takes on the omniscient voice of a 19th-century realist novelist for this bleak story set in a provincial town in China, 1979. A people who had endured the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution might have expected a thaw after the death of Mao – but it was a long time coming.
A young woman, Gu Shan, has been sentenced to death for anti-communist beliefs: before her show execution, her vocal cords are cut to prevent her shouting defiant slogans; and her kidneys are removed while she's still alive to donate to a high-ranking party official.
With great psychological acuity, Li records the lives of the people affected by the event – Gu Shan's anguished parents; the crippled girl Nini, who is treated like a slave by her family; the half-witted idler Bashi, who's scorned by everyone; the beautiful newsreader Kai, who has secret counter-revolutionary ideas.
In a world of oppression, cruelty trickles down from the top, resulting in "a place of cold-heartedness and animosity [where] the small fire of friendship could only do so much to keep one warm and hopeful". As grim, and as compassionate, as Zola.