Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“That is my fate,” Wen the Dreamer told me, “To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.”

Like an intricate carving of concentric interlocking elements, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a story within a story within a story.

The first, outermost shell of the story is that of a young Canadian girl, Marie/Li-Ling, who, after the suicide of her father, is visited by the daughter of one of her father’s oldest friends, a fellow Chinese musician and his tutor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The second is the story Ai-Ming, the visitor, reveals – the tale of how their two families came to be intertwined.

The third is the Book of Records – the story laboriously copied out by hand in numerous notebooks, hidden over and over and used to conceal buried messages between loved ones.

Together the three stories reveal the terrible history of the Chinese Revolution, from the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War, through to the events in Tianamen Square in 1989 that were watched around the world.

Ai-Ming is an engineer and Marie is a mathematician, but their fathers were musicians and Ai Ming comes from a long line of musicians. Music, Chinese and Western, twists and twines its way through the narrative, and one of the novel’s central tragedies springs from the way music was ripped from their lives by the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

The names of the characters – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife, Comrade Glass Eye – are like names from a fairytale, and when Ai-Ming begins to tell the story, that is how it seems to Marie But the closer events move in time, the less dreamlike they appear until, by the time we reach the occupation of Tianamen Square in April 1989, it is as if we are there on the streets with the protesting students and workers who supported them.

For those of us who find it impossible to imagine what it must be like to live in a society that tries to control, not just everything you do, but everything you think, this opens a window on both compliance and rebellion, and reveals that price that is paid that your inner and outer selves become not merely different, but incompatible.

A deeply personal story of love, friendship and dedication that nevertheless reveals, in breathtaking panorama, a segment of 20th C history too little understood in the West.

As the author reminds us: “Throughout the world, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things ... have not demanded justice for the victims or offered to help them.”

Winner of the 2016 Giller Prize and shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories that spin out over decades / generations

Perfect Accompaniment: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould; Shostakovitch’s Symphony No 5.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

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