The Vagrants, By Yiyun Li

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The Independent Culture

This heart-rending novel opens on a spring day in 1979 with the unthinkable -- a mother and father compose themselves for their daughter's execution.

Gu Shan, has been outed as a counter-revolutionary, and there is to be no repreive. Her vocal chords have been cut out in readiness, her kidneys assigned to an ailing Party official.

This act of inhumanity sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is strewn with similar atrocities. A stark portrait of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Li evokes day-to-day life in Gu Shan's hometown of Muddy Waters. Occasional outbreaks of individuality relieve the gloom.

Li, who writes in English, in 1996 left China for America, where she studied at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. This is not an easy read, but a revelatory depiction of a world where every act has a political implication.