Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien

“But what was music? … Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothes, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her. Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of sections, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations?

“Her father looked at the piano as if it were the only solid thing in the room, as if everything and everyone else, including himself, were no more than an illusion, a dream.”

Madeleine Thein’s novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is responsible for the biggest shift in my opinion of a book that I have ever experienced. I purchased this book in a Boxing Day sale and finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago. At first, I had a hard time getting interested in the story. It took me about 130 pages to really start to enjoy it, but I’m glad I persevered longer than usual. Once I got into it, I couldn’t read the rest of this story fast enough. This book is outstanding.

This novel moves back and forth between two stories: Marie, her mother, and their mysterious houseguest Ai-ming in 1990s Vancouver and China leading up to and during Mao’s Cultural Revolution with the story of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli. Like I mentioned, I had a difficult time getting into Marie and her mother’s story. I found it a bit confusing and slow to start, with the movement back and forth in time adding to my disorientation. Since the novel makes many mentions of the “Book of Records,” I had some trouble deciding whether the sections that were not about Marie’s life were stories of her family’s past or stories from this book. The Chinese names also tangled me up a bit as I found myself forgetting who was who, and how everyone was related to one another. That being said, once I got into the style, I become completely immersed in the story of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli. The writing in these sections is absolutely vivid. I can’t remember the last time I felt “in” the story as much as I did with this novel. It felt like I was right there with the characters, which was enthralling.

One of my favourite aspects of this story is its focus on musicians. This story includes beautiful discussions of music and performance that were very touching to me. I’m not sure if some of the more technical parts would be lost on individuals with little or no musical background, but as someone who has studied music for about 15 years, these sections described music perfectly. I typically do not like books that discuss music this much because it is often over-the-top in its discussions of how much impact music has on the lives of the characters. Here, Thien gets it exactly right. Music is central to these characters’ identities, but she never makes the point of saying this explicitly. In this story, music is the common thread that enables these characters to cope in a difficult time and find beauty in a world that is otherwise falling apart around them. The music is inextricable from the characters and central to the way they see themselves and the world in which they live. Thein expresses this with stunningly poetic writing.

Similar to its focus on music as a means of coping with difficult times, this novel also brings literature to the foreground as a key way the characters are able to communicate throughout the story. The Book of Records was a way several families were able to correspond despite strict censorship and to maintain a link to their lives before the revolution. This struck me as a particularly powerful message.

I also really enjoyed the use of written Chinese characters throughout the book. Thein includes the written characters along with their meanings and the ways they can be combined to mean something completely different. This was completely new to me and I found it fascinating!

You might have noticed that I have said very little about the actual plot of this novel. I went into this story only having read the synopsis flap on my copy, which gives away very little. After reading this novel I agree that seeing this complex, heartbreaking story unfold across generations and continents is the reason this novel is as beautiful as it is. It is safe to say that Madeline Thein will join the list of authors whose sections I visit every time I go into a bookstore, just to see if there is something new.

Story: 9/10

Writing: 10/10

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