Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien: A review

A challenging book to read but worth the effort.

Madeleine Thien's highly acclaimed novel encompassing the history of China since the Communist Revolution of the 1940s up to the present day as seen through the experiences of two families is a harrowing tale in so many ways. It details the unraveling of a society through the government's implementation of various ill-considered social experiments and we watch in horror as that society rips itself apart during the Cultural Revolution and then recoil again as students protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As the government reacted violently to those protests, it seemed that China might indeed be torn asunder.

We see all of this through the eyes of two families who are intertwined by their experiences at the Shanghai Conservatory. These are families for whom music is the breath of life and musical notation, as well as specific musical works, play a large part in the telling of the story. Bach's Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould, for example, is a continuing theme throughout the book.

During the course of the novel, we meet three generations of the character Sparrow's family - his parents, himself and his siblings and his wife, and finally his daughter, Ai-Ming, who is central to the story. Sparrow was at the Shanghai Conservatory and he was a talented composer who could have had a successful career in music, but then the Cultural Revolution hit. He was denounced as a "rightist" and sent to work in a factory. He was forbidden to compose.

Sparrow's good friend and perhaps lover was Kai, a virtuoso pianist at the Conservatory. He was on a trajectory to become an acclaimed and famous performer when the Cultural Revolution changed everything. He survived by becoming a Red Guard and denouncing friends and instructors at the Conservatory. Eventually, he was allowed to emigrate and he ended up in Canada, in Vancouver. He married and he and his wife had a daughter, Li-Ling, aka Marie. Through all of his experiences, he never forgot his friend Sparrow and managed to keep a tenuous connection to him. 

We meet Marie and her mother when Marie is ten years old and her father has just committed suicide by jumping from a great height. (This seems to be a favorite method of suicide throughout the book, although some of the "suicides" may actually have been murder.) Her view of the world is changed when a Chinese refugee comes to live with them after the Tiananmen protests. It is Ai-Ming, Sparrow's daughter. She becomes like an older sister to the ten-year-old Marie.

As she learns more about the relationship between the two families, Marie becomes ever more curious about their history. Through a series of events, she eventually becomes the keeper of a volume called the "Book of Records" which has maintained a multi-generational record of details of the history of Sparrow's family. As she pieces together the familial connections, she becomes the storyteller who takes us into all the dark and light corners of this collective and universal chronicle of families.

The enormity of what Thien is attempting in the telling of this story is daunting to consider and yet she has managed to succeed in most cases, I think. The fact that I, a relative ignoramus about modern Chinese history, was able to follow along with her narrative without getting lost is proof of that. The hugeness of China tends to overwhelm us and make us tired, but by centering on the effects of events on two families, and particularly on two vulnerable men, the writer has made the almost inexpressible understandable.

Thien's book was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and although it did not ultimately win, it was most assuredly a worthy candidate. Indeed, many critics were appalled that it did not win.

Looking at the history of a nation struggling between revolt and control is both mesmerizing and horrifying. It is a reminder of the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is something that we would do well to remember, else we imagine that we are somehow exempt from the rules of history.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. Great review, Dorothy, I'm putting this on my wishlist.

    1. It's an incredible story, incredibly well-written.

  2. Wow, I need to read this! I agree with Carmen on the greatness of your review. It sounds like the novel contains most of the things I love in fiction.

    1. If you like to be challenged as a reader - and I think you do - then this is probably for you.


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