Yiyun Li's book is a bit hard to take. It is a grim portrait of the paranoid times under Communist China in the late 1970s when the Democracy Wall movement sprang up and was crushed. This novel is set in a provincial backwater and revolves around a dozen characters whose lives intersect in multiple ways with with the overpowering background event of a rebellion against the harsh Communist rule. Of course they get crushed.
Here is a snippet to show you the realism it provides into the behaviour of an ideological state:
A few teachers stood up and signaled to the auditorium, and more voices joined the chorus. It took several rounds for the principal to be satisfied with the roaring answer. "Long live the greatest, the most glorious, and the ever-correct Chinese Communist Pary," he said again with a thump-thump of his fist. "Do you all understand these words? What does this mean? It means our party has never been wrong and will never be wrong; it means that anything we do will not escape the scrutiny of the party. I know you've all been taught to respect your parents, but what are they compared to the party, our foremost parents? Everybody is equally loved by the party, but when someone makes a mistake, just as when a child makes a mistake, the party will not let a single wrongdoer slip by. No one will be spared; no crime will be tolerated."The story is dreary in its careful depiction of the sordid details of how human souls get perverted and crushed by a heartless regime. This book reads like fiction, and is, but it is real enough. This is the sad truth of Communist China, a regime that still endures.
The regime has learned to back off people's private lives, but this regime is still absolutely ruthless in crushing anything that remotely appears to contend with it for the people's hearts and minds. Think Falun Gong and how that was cruelly crushed. This story has hints of Falun Gong in that it has a subplot of a "counter-revolutionary" whose kidney's are "harvested" while she is still alive because the high Party cadre didn't like the idea of getting kidneys from a dead person.
It takes a strong stomach to work through this book. The brutality reminds me of Marina Nemat's novel Prisoner of Tehran.
This novel is a graphic portrayal of reality despite being a work of fiction. It reminds me of the graphic details of the autobiographies of Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai and Jung Chang's Wild Swans.
If you want to understand the incredible cruelty and butchery of Communist China, you need to read Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story