…This is small-town universality with a difference. That difference is Communist China. The town isn’t small; it only feels that way, as a provincial city where everyone seems to know his neighbor’s business. The city’s name is Muddy River, and with good reason. Ms. Li presents a desolate yet fully transporting vision of China in the turmoil of the late 1970s, still reeling from the death of Mao Zedong and clinging to unclear measures of political rectitude and very clear methods of political corruption. She skillfully encapsulates this larger vision into the monstrous, Sino-Dickensian details of Muddy River’s dysfunctional family life.
Most events and characters in “The Vagrants” can be linked to the theatrically public execution of Gu Shan, a former member of the Red Guards now accused of anti-Communist apostasy. This seasoned, embittered political veteran has repudiated her past and spent a decade in prison. It hardly matters, to her or to anyone else, that she is only 28. Gu Shan is all but dead as “The Vagrants” begins. Her vocal cords have been cut to keep her from making any more trouble.