Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Starting in Canada when Ai-Ming arrives illegally to stay with narrator Marie and her mother. Marie and Ai-Ling become close friends, as Ai-Ling tells the story of growing up in China, and the story of their families shared past. Through three generations at momentous points in China’s history the story is expertly woven with music and a story linking their tales beyond blood. The narrative of Marie and Ai-Ling is threaded with that of three musicians in Shanghai in the 1960’s cultural revolution, Sparrow, his cousin Zhuli, and their friend Jaing Kai, and the events of Big Mother and her sister Swirl in 1950’s China. As each characters story unfolds, engaging and (sometime confusingly) complex describing thoughts, feelings, emotions and fears in key points of Chinese history.
It was jarring. What I was reading, the policing, the denunciations, the restrictions and the Communist Party rule – it had never felt more real. As a western white kid, I knew of the Tiananmen Square protests, but they were abstract, an event in my history book. This book bought the events and the reality of three different generations across the world into sharp relief. It was disorientating – I felt as if I was reading a dystopian novel that felt uncomfortably real, but had the knowledge that this happened. This is the recent past. It is a novel that makes you think. Reading sections dated
Music, Chinese characters and vibrant people fill the pages and it is worth every second spent reading it.
I don’t know how else to describe it without giving away the story and ruining it for you. It can be a bit dense at times, and the characters relationships to each other become a little hazy, but so long as you realise the main characters of each generation, the rest falls into place. It made me cry on more than one occasion, and I had to read it in chunks before bed so it didn’t impact my essay writing.
It had a weird chapter numbering system that I thought interesting. In Book One, they count up. In Book Zero, they count down. Just a little notice, not sure why she did this, not in a literature class so not going to hash it out to abstracts.
I do believe this is the shortest review I have written of a book that moved me so completely, but finding the words to explain how it has made me feel eludes me. Let’s just say it is fully deserving of being shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction this year, but I haven’t read the other five just yet so I can’t pass judgement on which title should win.