‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

“In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989.  It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.  Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.”

Winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and nominated for the Man Booker, this is no doubt an important literary novel but I found it hard to get into and kept losing the thread. There are a lot of characters with multiple names and time shifting to add to the confusion. I soldiered on and found the second half better, but I know a lot of people who have given up on this novel before the first 100 pages were finished and that is a shame. Some editing of the first half might have helped and I think I would have benefited from a family tree chart and character list (which are actually available on Wikipedia). Parts of it were beautifully written, and there are interesting aspects, but even though I tried, I found it hard to connect to the characters. What did come through loud and clear in this book, was the controlling feature of Chinese government and politics in this time period. The author did powerfully use music as a passionate and poignant counterpoint to strict cultural and political ideologies. Telling Chinese history is tricky and often dangerous business. Thien courageously tackles this, but the book falls into the unfortunately common trap of being a noteworthy literary novel that is not readable enough for a wide audience.

For a more literary review of this book, please go the Globe and Mail or The Guardian. Both are excellent resources.

One response to “‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

  1. Hear, hear … I gave this book a serious try, but found it overwhelmingly depressing and gave up. Too bad, indeed.

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