2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, China, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Madeleine Thien, Publisher, Setting

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeliene Thien
UK edition

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.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Canadian edition

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.

2016 Giller Prize

The 2016 Giller Prize shortlist

Giller Prize shortlist logoEarlier today, the shortlist for the 2016 Giller Prize was announced in Canada.

The shortlisted titles are:

I plan on reviewing all the titles as part of my participation in the Shadow Giller jury. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner of the $100,000 prize will be announced on 7 November. The Shadow Giller will name our winner a couple of days beforehand.

Author, Book review, Cambodia, Canada, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Madeleine Thien, Publisher, Setting

‘Dogs at the Perimeter’ by Madeleine Thien


Fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, a very moving novel about the Cambodian genocide in which more than a million people were systematically killed as part of Pol Pot’s regime. Her fellow Canadian author Madeleine Thien treads similar territory with her novel Dogs at the Perimeter, which opens as follows:

On November 29, 2005, my friend Dr. Hiroji Matsui walked out of Montreal’s Brain Research Centre at 7:29 in the evening. On the security video, his expression gives nothing away. For a brief moment, the camera captures him in passing: greying hair, neatly combed. […] He exits through a side door, down a flight of metal steps. And then Hiroji walked into the city and disappeared into air.

A novel about disappearances

Hiroji’s disappearance is the first among many in this novel, which is essentially about the ways in which the people of Cambodia disappeared, many of them overnight and without warning, during 1975-79.

His friend and colleague, Janie, who narrates most of this story, lost her entire family in the Cambodian genocide. But that was 30 years ago. Now she lives in Canada, is married, has a son and a successful career as a electrophysiologist studying neuron activity. What we don’t understand when we first begin reading the book is why Janie no longer lives in the marital home and why she only sees her son at the school gate in the mornings.

So this is a book about secrets, too.

And in the disjointed narrative that swings between first person and third person those secrets, both recent and long since buried, come to the surface in tune with Janie’s fragmented recollections.

Past and present collide

When Janie heads to Cambodia to look for Hiroji — because that is where she believes he has gone to look for a long-lost brother who was a Red Cross doctor — her past and present collide.

For the first time in her life, she is able to confront what happened to her as an 11-year-old girl when she and her family were turfed out of their home in Phnom Penh by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and transported to the countryside. She recalls the fear, the starvation — and the smell of death. And she remembers what it was like to escape by boat and to arrive in Canada as a young, traumatised refugee.

Dogs at the Perimeter is far from a cheery read, but there’s something about Thien’s detached prose style that left me feeling strangely unmoved by the story. It’s almost as if you are watching events unfold from behind a window; you can witness the pain and the grief and the horror, but you can never feel truly part of it because you are shielded by a thick pane of glass.

Deftly controlled narrative

Thien’s narrative is deftly controlled. It’s up to the reader to figure out what is going on, and in many ways it mirrors Janie’s descent into pyschological breakdown, offering important scraps of information in random order, so that nothing is truly straightforward.

In fact, there were times I found the storyline a little bewildering, because I wasn’t sure what was real and what was not, nor whether Janie was talking about something in the here and now, or something that had happened in her past. But this is not a complaint. The novel invites slow, careful reading — and sometimes that is more rewarding than turning the pages at a furious pace.

As a book that explores memory, loss and madness — both political and personal — Dogs at the Perimeter is extraordinarily good, incredibly haunting and compassionate.