Do Not Say We Have Nothing

If only Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien had won the 2016 Man Booker Prize instead of Paul Beatty! Do Not Say We Have Nothing first caught my eye when it made the Booker longlist, so I was delighted when a fellow book-clubber nominated this novel for our March read - and it definitely lived up to the hype. I loved this book. As a word of warning though, one or two of our book clubbers found it slow-going at the start, until they worked out the characters and the shifting time periods. But do persevere! It's well worth the effort. And if you read our review before you begin (including the cast of characters at the end), you'll have a better idea of who's who.

To be honest, I'd be hard-pressed to recall a more beautifully written, insightful book. This is a deeply moving account of a very harrowing period in Chinese history, beginning with the Great Leap Forward and ending with the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. And in the middle: the years of upheaval, abuse and violent class struggle known as the Cultural Revolution.

This was a time when respected professors, accomplished artists and talented musicians were suddenly hauled from their practice rooms or tutorial sessions and interrogated, assaulted and denounced by their friends and colleagues. Often the end result was death – either at the hands of Mao’s Red Guards, or by suicide, following extreme humiliation or despair. Books, poetry and music were eliminated, and musical instruments were either damaged or destroyed. People went to great lengths to hide personal letters, poetry, or sheets of music.

Against this historical backdrop, Thien weaves a powerful family narrative that centres on the relationships between three young musicians – Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli – who are all struggling to survive during the Cultural Revolution. Each reacts differently to the challenges and restrictions enforced by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party – and as the reader, I found myself wondering which of the three paths I might have taken.  

The novel actually begins in Canada in 1990, where 10-year old Marie (also called Li-ling) and her mother receive a guest, Ai-Ming, who is the daughter of Sparrow. (Interestingly, Thien explained that her own family sheltered a young Chinese student when Madeleine was a small child, and that their relationship had a profound influence on her own life). Ai-Ming, a university student, fled Beijing following the tragic Tiananmen Square protests; and in a short time, the two girls form a close bond. Marie’s father has recently taken his own life, but the reasons behind his death remain a mystery. Through fragments of photos, written accounts and personal recollections, Ai-Ming begins to reveal elements of their shared history, including the close bond between their fathers, Sparrow and Kai. When Ai-Ming suddenly disappears, Marie makes it her quest to piece together seven decades of tragic, chaotic family history – uncovering the events and relationships that shaped her father’s life, and the lives of those he loved.

The idea of Chinese history is complex. For over 60 years, the historical narrative has been twisted or suppressed to serve the shifting needs of the political regime. Writing the wrong sort of history – one that deviates from the party line – can still have serious ramifications. When we met Madeleine Thien at the Wheeler Centre earlier this month, she talked about the difficulty researching the events of Tiananmen Square: each year, around the time of the June anniversary, more and more online accounts and references are erased. She also shared the difficulty in finding a publisher for her novel in China, where the dissemination of information is still tightly controlled. Interestingly, the Hong Kong publishing industry was also proving hard to crack – something that surprised Thien.

Madeleine Thien is a very humble, softly spoken lady. I was especially struck by her precise, thoughtful responses to each question that was posed by the audience: every word was considered, with no such thing as a throw-away comment. Her writing is just the same.

If you’ve ever been to China, or if you’re at all interested in Chinese history, then this book is a must-read. In the same league as some of our other recent historical fiction novels – A Fine Balance (India) and The Orphan Master’s Son (North Korea) – this is a story that will stay with you for a long time. 

NB: A list of characters:

Sparrow - a young male composer who taught Jiang Kai (Kai)

Kai - a brilliant pianist whose family died during the Great Leap Forward

Zhuli - a violin protege, and cousin of Sparrow

Big Mother Knife - mother of Sparrow and sister of Swirl

Ba Lute - husband of Big Mother Knife

Wen the Dreamer - father of Zhuli

Swirl - Mother of Zhuli, sister to Big Mother Knife

Marie - daughter of Kai

Ai-Ming - daughter of Sparrow and Ling

Reviewed by Carmen