Fiction – paperback; Granta; 480 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It’s not often I struggle to say something about a book, but trying to review Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing has proved a challenge.
So much has been written about this novel in the past six months, mainly because of its shortlisting on both the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2016 Giller Prize, that I didn’t feel I could add anything new. Then, when I sat down to commit my thoughts to this blog last week, it was named winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and the internet was awash, once again, with praise and reviews.
On that basis I’m going to keep this short.
Life under Communism
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a careful blur of fiction and history that follows the interlinked lives of two Chinese families and their struggle to survive under China’s Communist rule. It spans the time of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s right through until the student protests in 1989.
The narrative comprises two threads. The first, written in the first person in 1991, is told from the perspective of Marie, a 10-year-old girl living in Canada with her Chinese mother. Their lives are interrupted with the arrival of a young Chinese woman, Ai-Ming, who is fleeing the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is Ai-Ming’s story, told in the third person, of her family’s life in revolutionary China, which forms the second narrative thread.
And it is this thread that makes Do Not Say We Have Nothing such a powerful read, because it follows the topsy-turvy lives of three young classically trained musicians and their struggle to create music at a time when creative expression was forbidden except in the strictest of terms. The simple act of playing a violin, or just the “wrong” kind of music, for instance, could result in internment at best or death at worst.
An ambitious and epic novel
This book is best described as an “epic”. It’s not only ambitious in scope, its complex, interleaved narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, is meticulous in its detail. Yet the story never gets bogged down, perhaps because of its wonderfully drawn trio of musicians — composer Sparrow, violinist Zhuli and the pianist Kai — whose joys, sorrows and struggles we get to follow so intimately.
The novel’s strength is the way it so eloquently reveals how the hand of history leaves a long-lasting legacy, stretching across generations. Like several other books I’ve read recently (Magda Szubanksi’s Reckoning and Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water immediately come to mind) it explores intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and moral ambiguity. It shines a light on how political regimes can mark the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary, often devastating, ways.
Funnily enough, for all of that, I must admit that this book did not pack the emotional punch one might expect. It’s not that I did not care about these characters — I did — but somehow I felt as if I was always kept at a distance from them (this is also how I felt when I read Thien’s novel Dogs at the Perimeter several years ago). It wasn’t until I came to Ai-Ming’s involvement in the student protests in the late 1980s that I began to feel the true weight of this story, of how history somehow has an uncanny knack of repeating itself and that it is often the young, with so much to lose, who get trammelled by it.
I could point to many dozens of reviews more eloquent and detailed than mine, but let me just point to Naomi’s, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, for the two of us have read this book for the Shadow Giller.
In the meantime, if you loved this novel, I do highly recommend Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal by Jan Wong, a non-fiction book about the long-lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution on two students, and Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, an epic novel about the 1989 student pro-democracy movement. I have reviewed other books set in China or by Chinese writers here.
This is my 6th and final book for the #ShadowGiller2016
UPDATE — TUESDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2016: Do Not Say We Have Nothing has been awarded this year’s Giller Prize. You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.