Small-town life has the reputation of being constrained by neighbors who know everyone else’s business. This truth is taken to an extreme in the impoverished provincial Chinese town of Muddy River, the setting of Yiyun Li’s powerful first novel, The Vagrants (Random House, $15). It’s 1979, a decade after the Cultural Revolution and another ten years before the Tiananmen Square uprising. Democracy Walls are springing up in Beijing, but no one knows how far they will go. When a young woman is executed as a counterrevolutionary after her boyfriend reports the once-fervent believer’s doubts about the Party, her village is split between those who want to protest and those who fear the authorities. In Li’s vivid portrait of a repressed society, even schoolchildren can become informers, and personal acts bear political consequences.
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