The first chapter is almost startling in its peacefulness, the way a father’s attitude to his daughters execution has been described. Gu Shan, painted as a counter-revolutionary, is being executed, and the book revolves around the characters in her town, and the aftermath of her execution.
The background of the story may be a little confusing to someone who isn’t familiar with Red China or Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, however, the story is engaging in itself, and all you need to know is that Gu Shan was initially a Red Guard, a fanatic believer in the cultural revolution, and later turned disloyal. She is imprisoned and executed for expressing her doubts about the revolution, and for the younger audience, the details of her betrayal and subsequent execution will hold a gruesome fascination and provide a completely different take on human loyalties.
The book is elaborate in many ways, drawing you into the depths of the communist regime in China, and all the persecutions people had to endure in those times. Simple folk such as municipal sweepers, teachers and factory workers live in the constant fear that the eye of the regime would be drawn to them. In contrast, Bashi, a young 20 year old with no loyalties to anyone except his grandmother, is carefree and easy going, doing precisely what he feels like, with no fear of anyone or anything. As his story progresses, you are stripped of that feeling of peace, and another feeling, one of turmoil, takes its place. Yiyun Li keeps you guessing about Bashi, and you wonder whether he is simple-minded, impetuous, or just plain lucky.
The story of Kai is perhaps the simplest, a counter-revolutionary at heart, Kai is forced into behaving like a supporter due to her marriage with Han. Han, an official in the regime, is probably the most transparent character in the book. He is ambitious, charming and has been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. There are no complexities to his character, as opposed to Kai, who has been drawn in such a way that you will encounters depths to her character that are rarely seen in such peripheral cast.
Kai and her ‘friends’ engineer a fantastic fall-out to the execution of Gu Shan. They incite the town to action and a petition is signed. It is at these moments towards the end of the book, that the tale becomes truly exciting and you feel the urge to get to the end, to know the fate of the characters in the book. At this point, the book stops being peaceful altogether, and sweeps you up in events and emotions that seem to be building up to a sumptuous climax.
A central character to the book, and perhaps the most poignant is Nini. A young girl of 11, Nini is disfigured and unwanted. Her story tells of the change in her circumstances, how she goes from lonely and despairing to happy, until events in her little town catch up with her as well.
Throughout the book, a feeling permeates; that of inevitability. All the people in the town, Muddy River, are affected by Gu Shan, who is only one in thousands upon thousands of people accused of being counter-revolutionary. Her life and execution profoundly impacts everyone in her hometown and the chain of events, and ripples of change that hit Muddy River, are what carry the book through to its conclusion. A conclusion that is bitter and poignant, yet, inevitable.
2010, pp 337,