Do Not Say We Have Nothing explores the tumultuous events of China’s cultural revolution in the twentieth century through the eyes of an extended family, whose members spread across three generations and over seventy years. The vast scope of history and suffering that Madeleine Thien tackles is difficult to comprehend, but she overcomes this through a strong narrative voice embedded within the family that are her subjects. These individuals are tied not only by their bloodline and shared experiences, but also through a love of music. This passion for composition acts as a thread running through the novel, tying their personal stories together. It also serves to enrich the characters by giving a potentially inaccessible story an aspect so inherently human that the reader cannot help but be pulled in.
Thien’s writing style is almost dream-like, carrying you along like a lullaby through the complex stories and experiences of Ai-Ming, Marie and their ancestors. The narrative focus shifts constantly, throwing the reader into different eras and countries; from China at the beginning Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution to Canada in the 1990s, where Marie and her mother emigrate to escape the repercussions of the regime. Admittedly, this instability is difficult to follow initially, as it creates complex framed narratives. However, the strength of the narrator’s voice and the empathy inspired by each character easily allow the reader to connect with the different generations, and thereby understand the impact of Mao’s regime both immediately and over time. Thien’s tone of tranquillity also serves to make the instances of violence and suffering all the more shocking by creating a dichotomy between style and content; a good example being Wen the Dreamer’s torturous walk of shame, which is forced on him by the villagers who see him as an intrinsically evil landowner, as a result of the Land Reform of 1950.
One of the most thought-provoking themes in the novel is music, and its power to provide connections between people as they try to escape the world around them. The Shanghai Conservatory of Music is a focal point in the novel, as it brings together three pivotal characters and, consequently, two families – Sparrow, an inspiring composer with a penchant for Bach; his sister Zhuli, a talented violinist; and Kai, a shy yet uncompromising composer who idolises Sparrow. Together, these characters embody the power of music and pass it down through their families, creating a kind of protective barrier against the world around them. This barrier, however, proves ineffective in the face of such huge change in China. Sadly, putting faith in it leads to tragedy and death.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing challenges itself in presenting such a vast and turbulent time in China’s history, yet succeeds in its task through Thien’s authentic and accessible characters. Each individual draws you in, later breaking your heart with all the pain and suffering that they have to endure. This is an undeniably powerful novel whose themes stay with you for a long time, and is a testament to Thien’s talent as a storyteller.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta Books, 2o16)
Photo credit: Villa Giulia