Yiyun Li’s exceptional debut novel, The Vagrants, lays bare the costs of China’s rise to superpower status and the ideological inconsistencies at its core. The vagrants of the title are both physical – itinerants of different shapes and stripes whose town, Muddy River, is less a home and more a place in which to live for a time – and abstract, in the form of freedoms, hope, opinions and trust, which flicker into existence only to move on or change shape.
In 1979 Mao is dead, and his cultural revolution fading into memory. But for counter-revolutionary Gu Shan, twenty-eight years old and already ten years in prison, there is no reprieve. Her public execution galvanises some of Muddy River’s occupants to come together, at first secretly, and then in