Do Not Say We Have Nothing
I'm looking forward to Wordsworth House book group's thoughts on Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. I found this a hauntingly sad book, a strong contender for being one of the saddest books I have ever read. Set against the backdrop of China and Canada, from the early twentieth-century to the present day, loss and separation echo throughout the novel: loss of identity, loss through death, loss through geography and time, loss of self through outside control.
This is at times very painful to read, but Thien writes lyrically and beautifully. Her language and characters draws you in and the way she weaves her story through different time periods is masterful. Thien places questions before you. What would it mean to lose your freedom of thought? How would you react to being forced to deny bonds of family and friendship? How far would you go to preserve yourself at the expense of others? What price do you pay for this in terms of the human soul?
Thien writes with compassion and understanding and her questioning of what it means to be human is one of true relevance today. A worthy Booker Prize contender!
This book is like a wonderful piece of music. It is moving and completely unfathomable!
I don't know how music works, I don't know why certain music provokes strong emotions in me, I only know that it can. This book is the same.
There is so much here that I don't understand, so much that is beyond my experiences, that logically this book should leave me cold. But the emotions that inform and drive the characters are universal and expressed so elegantly that I can't help but be drawn in to their world.
This review would become a major essay if I were to discuss the story and themes; it would take a thousand words just to list the many threads woven throughout.
Therefore I will merely state that this is the most moving book I have ever read. It deserves to be read again and again and must be considered a modern classic.
Some horrendous torture scenes were well described and sadness evoked at losses of various sorts. There were too many characters for me to follow exactly what was happening. It was a very heavy going book, often felt like a history lesson.
All novels tell of individual lives, but in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing passing on those tales has extra significance. Set amid the horrors of China’s Communist and Cultural revolutions, when failure to conform is a death sentence, the book focuses on two families of musicians – and the price they pay for survival.
By 1990, Marie is growing up in the safety of Canada and trying to come to terms with her father’s suicide, when Ai-ming, the daughter of his mentor, seeks refuge after becoming involved in the Tiananmen Square protest.
Helped by Ai-ming, Marie begins to piece together the decades of suffering that have gone before. The story that follows snakes back and forth between generations, perspectives and locations. It is impressively constructed and beautifully written, but it isn’t an easy read.
With millions of Chinese dying as a result of state-sponsored brutality, and those clinging onto life robbed of the right to act and even think independently, submission is everything: a single word out of place can be fatal.
For Marie and Ai-ming’s parents and grandparents, passing on chapters of The Book of Records becomes a way to preserve precious fragments of individuality – and share vital coded information – as they move around the country.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel you need to clear a whole weekend for. Dip in and out, and you could easily lose your grip on the intricately woven narrative. Give it the time and attention it deserves, though, and an understated yet chilling exposé of life in 20th-century China will unfold.
I was quite excited at the prospect of reading this book. A novel set in communist China and covering the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 was definitely of interest. And, indeed, I found the historical side extremely interesting and the depiction of the horrors of living day to day under Mao’s regime fascinating. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep me engaged and I found my interest waning after initial enthusiasm. I never really felt that I got to know the characters or gained any understanding of their motivations and this meant that I found the book pretty hard going, especially for long sections in the middle.
This book fascinated me but actually made me feel a little ashamed that I didn't know more about the true horror of living in this era in China. I learnt a lot and now want to learn some more. I was engrossed by the start and end of the book - I could engage with the characters, I could feel what they were experiencing and I cared about what happened to them. Sadly, I didn't feel the same about the middle section. It felt slower and a little repetitive in terms of the scenes - people being shipped off to who knows where, the work camps, the punishments, the brutal meetings - and I got confused by what was going on. I didn't get the same level of engagement - someone in my book group said they felt like they were on the edge of the story, which was the perfect description of how my feelings about the book changed. Maybe this was deliberate, maybe the author wanted to show how those living through these events had to have a certain level of detachment or perhaps how the regime made society act that way, but it meant the book lost my interest and reading it became a bit of a chore. However, the events towards the end had me gripped once more. It's worth a read, for the history lesson alone, but have plenty of spare time set aside before you open it!
A slow burn that gets under your skin and won’t let go.
I struggled with Do Not Say We Have Nothing to start with – there are lots of characters to get to know and because we encounter them at different times in their lives the reader is left to do a lot of filling in the gaps.
But subtly, as the heart-rending choices the characters are forced to make are played out, the book took hold of me and I got to the point where I couldn’t put it down. Thien raises so many questions about identity – what is it that makes us who we are? If we’re forbidden from loving who we love, listening to the music that’s defined us, doing the job that we’ve always wanted to do – all those markers of individualism in the west – are we still us? How do we know?
The novel provides no easy answers, and it’s not exactly what I’d call an easy read, but it’s captivating and haunting, weaving fiction and reality as deftly as the musical scores that are so beautifully and evocatively described in the text, occasionally dropping in curve balls in the form of photographs that left me questioning the entire concept of what is ‘true’. I loved it.
The start of this book gripped me and intrigued me in equal measures, a story set across continents, following the characters through different times. The historical backdrop of communist China (something I ashamedly knew little about) providing a bleak backdrop for the colourful, well written characters. However the middle section, full of the uncomfortable horrors of living under Mao's regime left me feeling disengaged. Though full of historical detail it was at times repetitive and unemotional. This section seemed to drag and I didn't feel as compelled to continue reading as I had before, even thinking of not finishing it. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Thien to try and give the reader a glimpse of the confusion and frustration of living through these events. The end of the book gripped me again as many of the plot lines came together, the pace and sense of urgency returned as the story moved to the Tiananmen Square protests, but by this time I couldn't re-engage with the characters and had become detached from the plot. It's not an easy or enjoyable read but I'm glad I finished it.
Music, story telling and family connect the central characters of this moving tale of political oppression, personal loss and survival. Madeleine Thien's characters are vivid and alive, and it is hard not to become emotionally attached to them as you witness the mayhem brought upon their lives by political revolution and displacement. Their voices powerfully convey the cruelty and inhumanity of communist China through the 1940s to the 1980s, how it destroyed families, tore apart communities and devastated individual lives. It is also though, a reflection on how the bonds of family love and human kinship can survive despite great adversity and political subjugation. At the heart of the story are a group of talented young classical musicians whose education and careers are at the mercy of faceless authorities; as they try to develop their talents and focus on their studies they are overwhelmed by the upheavals of revolution, and their support for each other through a love of music is put to the test. Spanning out from the young musicians are the interwoven lives of their families and friends, and their individual journeys of personal adaptation and survival. Large sections of the story are narrated in the present day by the daughter of a family who escaped to the west; as she searches for answers to the unanswered questions about her predecessors lives she uncovers more than she ever expected to find.