Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a remarkable book. The depth and lyricism of Thien’s prose is almost hypnotic, capable of transplanting you wholesale into the novel’s setting. There’s a haunting melancholy at work throughout Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a pervasive sense of loss that is never quite defined as anything specific. I feel that, depending on your age when reading it, there will be different losses a reader will attach themselves to. The loss of music in the lives of the two families, the loss of a community, a loss of innocence...
For me, it was a loss of extraordinary potential possessed by all of the characters, focalised through the narration of Marie/ Ai-Ming arrives at ten-year old Marie’s home in Canada in 1991, fleeing China after the Tiananmen Square protests and granted sanctuary by Marie’s mother. During her stay, Ai-Ming tells the tale of her family during the years of the Cultural Revolution and the impact that it has upon their lives. It’s a ripple effect and the decisions made by Ai-Ming and Marie’s families have are felt by the two women as they grow up.
Each one is richly drawn by Madeleine Thien, placed within a rapidly changing world that seems to have its own set of shifting rules. The chief characters are three musicians experiencing the Cultural Revolution. Sparrow is a brilliant composer, Kai a talented pianist, and Zhuli, a violin prodigy in the making. Their often clashing reactions to the Revolution and how it transforms their relationships is the main narrative thread through the novel, but they are surrounded by various characters, each illuminating different struggles within this turbulent era.
Thien manages to make a sprawling story in a tempestuous political landscape feel achingly intimate, taking the reader into the most private turmoil. Sparrow’s journey is the best example of this, a man trying to do his best in a world that he no longer understands. As his life unfolds, Thien’s focus closes in on him and unfurls it with precision. When the story returns to Marie’s part of the story, the consequences of Sparrow’s decisions are still felt.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a book to savour, something which always proves to be a challenge as a fast reader, but it is nevertheless a challenge worth taking. It also feels like a particularly timely novel to read in light of recent political shifts with arts and culture under fire from political machinations. Every page of the novel is an argument for the solace that the arts can offer and a stark warning of the loss that can be suffered as a result.