Friday, July 29, 2016

Madeleine Thien's Masterful Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing / Madeleine Thien
Toronto: Knopf, c2016
480 p.

This is one of the best books I have read yet this year -- and apparently the Man Booker jury agrees with me, as it has just appeared on the Man Booker longlist! I am so glad it is getting wider exposure, as it is an important, disturbing story, and yet also a hopeful and beautiful one.

It follows three generations of a musical family, from their countrified past to the more international present. And in between -- lies the Cultural Revolution.

Marie lives in Vancouver with her mother. Her father Kai left them to travel to Hong Kong some years before, where he killed himself. They are bereft and uncertain about what happened or why.

Into their life comes Ai Ming, the daughter of Kai's  best friend Sparrow, a composer who never escaped China. Ai Ming has left China and needs a place to live. She comes to them briefly, and then drifts away, attempting to enter the US. Marie loses track of her, and in trying to both find her again and to find out the truth of her own father's life, the whole story unfolds before us.

It moves from present day Canada back to Sparrow's childhood, as the Maoist revolution is beginning. The horrors and betrayals of those years are clearly and chillingly told. The family uses its connections to survive, but as the revolution grows, their musical credibility turns into a liability. As musicians and professors are changed into elites who must be destroyed, this family crumbles into re-education and prisons. The role of art and beauty, books and stories recorded in beautiful calligraphy, is essential to the story and to this family's continuation. Eventually the next generation, Ai Ming's, finds a slight lessening of the political control, a crack to slip through to go to Canada. Even then the persecution is internalized; Ai Ming can't stay with Marie & her mother, or trust that she is free.

It's a powerful story. The content is striking -- with the stories twisted around one another so that they can't be separated. The contrast of love and beauty with the complete cultural destruction of China's past and history is unbelievably stark. It's terrifying, and it's brilliant. The writing is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, the story is so important. The way Thien has approached this family's story creates a narrative that makes perfect sense whether past or present. Each is told slightly differently, but cohesively. The structure of the book made it very satisfying to read, and the conclusion fit the long build up to get there. The musical content is reflected in the text, with themes recurring and overlapping, with variations to the stories from different angles; it's like a composition in itself.

I could go on about the many different characters, how they affect one another, the things they face -- but this is a long book and it would take a long time. Plus, the impact comes from just reading it and getting carried away by these stories.

I prefer to talk about my own personal reading experience when I share books here; I don't consider these posts to be "reviews". If you'd like some official reviews, try these:

A glorious review by David Hobbs at the Globe & Mail which says all I wish I could say, so well. 

Leslie Shimotakahara at the National Post reviews it as well

Isabel Hilton at the Guardian shares this book with British readers

Donna Bailey Nurse shares some thoughts and some similar reading at Macleans

As for me, I'd strongly recommend finding a copy as soon as you can, and settling in with it for a while. These characters will stay with you for a long time. Those who love beautiful, powerful writing, strong characters, and a setting that will overwhelm your senses will love this one.


Further Reading:

The memoir Wild Swans by Jung Chang also tells a story of three generations of women across 20th century China. It was an overwhelmingly successful book when it was first published, and the raw stories of the Cultural Revolution are still powerful.

For a story of unrest and change over three generations, but set in a different country dealing with repressive goverment, try Carolina de Robertis' The Invisible Mountain, a story which, as I said when I first read it, "illuminate[s] the tangled relationships between mothers and daughters, and between a country and its citizens."


  1. Great review - not a book or an author I've heard of but it sounds a powerful book - I'll look out for it.


    1. Oh, it is SO good. If you're looking for a completely mesmerizing summer chunkster, this is it.


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