Title: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Author: Madeleine Thien
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★★
Summary: Through three successive generations we experience momentous historical events of post-war China. The children of those who survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In a different narrative set in present-day Vancouver, 10-year-old Marie and her mother take in a young Chinese refugee named Ai-Ming. In the years to follow, Marie tries to make sense of her complicated and fractured family history, and her quest unveils how her layered story directly relates to Ai-Ming’s. This epic saga is skillfully weaved together by music, politics, family, and loss.
“The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.”
– Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien
I’ve wanted to read “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” for a while, but it still took me ages to actually get to it. I’ve read many raving reviews but I was still worried I wouldn’t find it as interesting as I wanted it to be. I don’t often read books that incorporate music in such a prominent way, and just from the summary alone I have to admit I had a hard time seeing how this was all going to tie in with the overarching historical events. My hesitation was a combination of limited knowledge and just not being intrigued enough. I was definitely worried it would turn out to be a boring, too technical read, but I’m so happy I took the chance because I was 100% wrong.
The novel is centered around several anchor points that all come together to form an extensive and cohesive story – or, if you will, a symphony. Music is the one thing that is present in every aspect of the book. I know next to nothing when it comes to composing and playing music, my knowledge about past famous composers is limited at best, and I have extremely little interest in the technical and historical aspect of classical music. The book does have its technical points and descriptions, but this is never complicated nor the main focus. More important is the music’s place during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The Shanghai Conservatory of Music is one of the central anchor points, a place where students and teachers ended up being denounced, many of which committed suicide as a result. Composer and conservatory director He Luting advocated for Western classical music, something which made him a target of the revolution. He refused to submit and was consequently threatened and abused on national television. This moment, which made He Luting a symbol of the attack on intellectuals during this time, is featured in Thien’s novel. Tied in with this is the story of the shy but brilliant composer Sparrow, the genius pianist Jiang Kai, and the gifted violinist Zhuli. They played different roles but had a common interest and love for music, until the revolution destroyed their world. For me, some of the most heartbreaking parts of the novel are those describing the lives, fates, and relationships of these three characters.
Another central part of the novel is the so-called “Book of Records”, which is present in all the different narratives. This is a collection of notebooks containing a story of unknown origin that the characters have continued to secretly copy down throughout the generations. The contents of this book is weaved into the main story and sometimes blurs the lines between past and present. It represents how a story can neither be remembered nor forgotten, and also shows how dangerous it could be to write and tell history, especially the kind that deviated from the government’s views. “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is in many ways a book about a book, and also a book that contains a story within a story.
Major events in China’s history is of course another important point as it serves as the backdrop of the novel as a whole. We get to experience life during the Cultural Revolution, which is basically what initially split the family for generations to come, before we’re transported to the suppression of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square several years later. The transitions between the passing years and historical events are flawless and smooth, and the writing is gorgeous and appropriately lyrical. The characters are many, and the family relations can seem a bit complicated and hard to get a grasp on to begin with, but they are all intriguing and complex. Each of them have such rich emotional lives and distinct personalities. It’s also interesting to see how the paths they take ultimately connect with each other and how their choices reverberate through the generations. These are characters I had absolutely no problem sympathizing with.
This is a book I couldn’t stop thinking about even days after I’d finished it. It’s a book about history, about violence, oppression, and persecution. It’s about the people living in the midst of such events and about their children, who continue to be affected even decades later. It’s about how people try to make sense of their own place in said history. The power of music reaches across time and space and ties everything together, and shows how it can create meaning and fulfillment in someone’s life.