Magisterial in its telling, Madeleine Thien’s novel is a mesmerising but tragic evocation of seven decades of contemporary Chinese history.
An accessible yet challenging narrative, Do Not Say We Have Nothing deftly weaves between generations and place as Li-ling, based in Canada, looks to understand events that led to her father’s tragic suicide at the age of 39. Having left his family, including the 10 year-old Li-ling, in Vancouver, Jiang Kai is found dead only a few days later in Hong Kong.
As Li-ling looks for answers many years after her father’s death, a sprawling narrative unfolds of China under Chairman Mao and the struggle for power after his death. The impact of revolution and counter-revolution on ordinary citizens – and Jiang Kai and his circle of friends and peers at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in particular – is lyrically and movingly portrayed.
Incorporating ancient Chinese mythology, folk tales, everyday events and unfolding politics emanating out of Beijing, a litany of memorable characters populate the novel – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer and his wife, Swirl, Big Mother, Zhuli, Ai-Ming, Yiwan, Kai himself – as their stories and histories interweave.
Central to the novel is Sparrow, a young and brilliant composer, teacher to Kai at the Conservatory. It is through his family that we travel through the decades and witness the destruction of family, dreams and idealism as revolutionaries become accused of counter-revolutionary views, as music becomes marginalised and censored, as political criticism results in denouncement and death.
Yet in spite of the terrible hardships and separations, humanity shines through as the ties that bind overcome the grief and suffering inflicted upon generations of Chinese. Sparrow and his family continue to eke out a living, even after the music they love becomes cause for persecution (at one stage every piano in China is destroyed) and family members are reassigned across the country according to the demands of labour.
Fiction and history blur in this epic story that is at once enchanting and informative, delicate and profound, tragic but uplifting. One to savour – I spent more than three weeks reading this powerful 460 page opus.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing lost out to Paul Beatty and The Sellout.