Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I’m planning on reading the Bailey’s Prize shortlist this year (I refuse to attempt the longlist, who has the time?), so when I woke up on March 8th to see that Do Not Say We Have Nothing was on the longlist, I thought I would try to get a head start and read it before the shortlist comes out. I bought it around the time of the Man Booker last year, for which it was nominated, but it’s been sitting on a shelf since then. Honestly, I prefer this to The Sellout, although that was a more interesting winner than this would have been and I’m very glad to have read it. I couldn’t say which was the “better” book, but personally I connected to this more.

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This is about several generations living through the latter half of the twentieth century in Communist China. It centres around one family, although various other people have significant role. It’s a sweeping novel, covering decades of time but without feeling like it’s dragging. I’m very impressed by Thien’s ability to build history into her story without having to pause and write an essay on five years of history every now and then so that the reader knows where we are. I don’t know all that much about Chinese history, beyond what I picked up from Wild Swans by Jung Chang and Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin (both of which I highly recommend), but I never found myself struggling to understand where the familial events fitted into national events. A detail that I really appreciated was the constant presence of the state radio station, whether it’s in the flat or out on the streets from the loudspeakers. It’s referred to  often, sometimes in depth or sometimes just briefly, which really contributed to an impression of living with that level of propaganda, compounded by the descriptions of settings, which almost always involve posters, frequently hand lettered denunciations.

Much of the book focuses on three characters: Sparrow, a composer, his cousin Zhuli, a talented violinist, and their friend Kai, a pianist. It was Sparrow who I really fell in love with. Zhuli is young and slightly frustrating, and Kai is too fearful of the regime, but Sparrow is a subtle, heartbreaking character. He feels very deeply but represses it, and yet he is so, so moving. I also adored his mother, Big Mother Knife.

I felt that there were a lot of borderline fairytale elements in the book. Some of the characters names, like Big Mother Knife, Wen the Dreamer, even Sparrow, feel like they’re out of some childhood tale. This is compounded by the way the book within the book which brings many of the characters together is woven into the novel itself, this heroic story of survival. I loved that side of it.

It is set in Shanghai, where they are all involved in the Conservatory. I would note that I think its being set in Shanghai is almost irrelevant, other than it being a major city – I didn’t come away with a particularly strong impression of what Shanghai is like. That’s not remotely a criticism, but the latter part of the story takes place in Beijing and there was a much stronger sense of that city.

The way music is written about in this novel floored me. My knowledge of classical music is definitely not good, but Thien writes about pieces that I’m not familiar in a way that made them so vivid to me without having heard them. I’ve actually listened to a few of the pieces mentioned since I finished the book, and as someone who doesn’t really understand music in any particular depth, Thien’s descriptions really helped me to understand what the pieces were about. I’ve read a number of books recently in which music plays a significant part, and this is definitely the one in which I have had the strongest idea of the music and the characters’ relationship to it.

I did find a couple of faults in the novel. Firstly, the framing device, the story of Marie and Ai-ming, the daughters of the protagonists, meeting and losing each other, and Marie’s subsequent search for Ai-ming, felt kind of superfluous to me. When Marie’s story came in and encroached on the other timeline, I found it kind of irritating. The other thing is that while there is a large cast of protagonists who are vividly characters, the secondary characters are kind of vague, nothingy figures. This means that when the protagonists think of them in emotional terms, it falls a little flat. For example, Ai-ming takes an enormous risk to see her mother when she falls ill, but her mother is given so little to do and their relationship seems so weak that I had no idea why she does that. Again, with Sparrow’s brothers, he thinks of them with affection and great concern at times, when we haven’t even seen him hold a conversation with them.

I came away from this novel with a lot of different ideas, a variety of impressions which form a surprisingly cohesive piece of writing. This makes it slightly difficult for me to talk about, and I can only really say that I absolutely love it.

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