A harrowing portrait of a woman’s execution by an oppressive Chinese regime, and how her death affects an entire provincial town.
The debut novel by Li (stories: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, 2005) takes place across a brief stretch of days in Muddy River, a poor town hundreds of miles from Beijing. But the modest setting and short time span belie this rich, expansive novel, which captures the anxieties and brutality of life during the last days of Maoism. In the spring of 1979, a young woman named Gu Shan is scheduled to be executed for protesting the Cultural Revolution. Her parents, Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu, are understandably heartbroken, and Shan’s death has an impact well beyond one household. On the day the townspeople gather in a nearby stadium for the mandated “denunciation ceremony,” we meet a cross-section of residents: Tong, a boy whose self-awareness grows beyond the indoctrination at his elementary school and the abuses of his alcoholic father; Kai, a former classmate of Shan’s who sympathizes with her politics even while married to a doctor eager to flatter party leaders; Nini, a crippled adolescent who’s practically enslaved by her parents; and Bashi, the town know-it-all who courts Nini even while mourning his grandmother’s death. As the story moves along it becomes clear how straitjacketed everybody’s lives are. Moreover, the reader gets graphic glimpses of Shan’s wrecked psyche before her execution and her ruined body after. Yet Li’s story has an empathetic, uncannily graceful tone. It helps that her characters aren’t strictly mournful: Tong has a boyish curiosity, Bashi is appealingly pranksterish, and Teacher Gu is admirably even-tempered, even as he slowly discovers how he was used as a political pawn for much of his life.
A complex, downbeat, ultimately admirable tale of a cloaked portion of Chinese history.