Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, 2016
Signed up the 05/04/2017
“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.”
That is the opening line of this book. The manner in which it was written and delivered, with simplicity and gravitas, sufficiently informs the reader of two things; firstly, that this is the telling of a tragedy; secondly, that the past is to be of great significance. What it does not tell the reader, however, is the sheer scope and magnificent breadth of the story.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins with a ten year old Chinese-Canadian girl named Li-ling, whose English name – and the name by which she is most commonly referred to throughout the book – is Marie, who lives with her mother in Vancouver. In 1991, a young Chinese refugee named Ai-Ming that's fleeing the Chinese government's post-Tiananmen Square crackdown on dissidents is added to their household. Ai-Ming's presence is the catalyst that sets off the rest of the plot, which fractures into a litany of different subplots focusing on four different periods of Chinese history — the land reform campaigns and the executions; the Cultural Revolution; during and after the Tiananmen Square protests; and the present.
Oscillating over seven decades of history, a vibrant array of characters where interlinking lives are introduced and followed, the trials and tribulations of the various periods in which they existed and how they affected them personally and their families and friends are explored with remarkable detail. Marie learns that her father, Jiang-Kai, was a talented concert pianist in his youth and was also friends with Ai-Ming's father, Sparrow; a gifted composer and Jiang-Kai's teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Throughout the course of the novel, Marie learns about her father's profound and often difficult relationships with different members of Ai-Ming's family, and how her father, as much as her heritage, plays an integral and devastating part of her life and the person she has become.
At the heart of this story is music — classical music in particular — how the love for and fascination with it binds people, and how the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc upon those whose lives revolved around it once it was deemed Western decadence worthy of persecution, the music running through the characters' minds and hearts even as great destruction and upheaval take over their lives. This story sets the up the beautiful and tragic things of life, such as love, passion and loss, up against the chaotic politics and policies of Maoism, constantly juxtaposing history with the stories of those whose lives history talks about.
It's a demanding read, requiring the reader to pay it the level of attention paid to the writing of it as it sweeps across multiple generations without ever being sprawling. This is a compelling account of 20th century China and the trials therein which will move you, and promises to cement this book among the most important of this century.
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