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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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By Madeleine Thien

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4 reviews

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016, 2017 Folio and Baileys Prizes, and winner of the 2016 Giller Prize: an epic and resonant novel about the far-reaching effects of China’s revolutionary history, told through the stories of two interlinked musical families, from the 1940s to the present day.


05 Jun 2017


I read this book as part of our reading groups participation in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

I must admit, I wasn’t looking forward to Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, it being something I wouldn’t normally pick up. I thought it was going to be an overtly tedious, stodgy read; however, the first few pages seemed to be changing my mind. I actually enjoyed them and I truly was pleased that my initial disregard for it would be proved wrong and that it would end up being a wonderful, deeply and moving book that would change my opinion on historical fiction forever. Only after those few pages were over and I read more and more, I was sadly proved right with my initial thoughts – it was overtly tedious and stodgy.

Wondering if I was alone in this, I made my way to Amazon and found something that seemed to sum up exactly how I was feeling.

Zangiku wrote: “I hate it primarily because it is so staggeringly pretentious. . . I hate it for its deliberate obscurity, its pomposity, its repetitive meandering tales, endless jargon and interminable political palaver. I hate it because its subject matter is an epic morality tale that could electrify [and] educate readers were it only left to tell itself, rather than harnessed to serve the author's ego [and] her sloppy, boring book.”

Thien doesn’t actually tell us anything; she insists on writing streams of words that she of course understands, but the reader is left knowing nothing new. Was it not her intention to educate us about Chinese history instead of leaving me wondering what “orioles and cardinals” are? (I’m pretty sure she was referring to the birds, and not the American football teams.) Would it have been a strain for her to explain it? Is enlightenment not an eastern philosophy after all? It’s not as if the rest of the novel was concise and cleanly written, instead she fully engaged in writing twenty words when one would have sufficed.

I wish I was exaggerating when I say that whenever I tried to read the book, I fell asleep. No matter the time of day or location, whenever I tried to give it another go, soon I was nodding straight off. I doubt it was the author’s intention to provide a sleep aid, but apparently it worked better than Nytol. As plain and childish as it may sound, it was just deeply and powerfully – boring. I don’t mean being ‘on hold’ boring, I mean waiting for dial up boring.

Personally, I was unable to form any attachments to the confusing mix of bland characters, and I wasn’t convinced by any of their relationships either. In me, Thien had an enthusiastic reader who wanted to know about Chinese history in an exciting and electrifying way, someone who wanted to learn about the struggles real people went through, only she misfired and simply turned me off faster than Gordon Brown eating rice cakes while playing darts in culottes, a string vest and socks with sandals.

Another reviewer on Good Reads expressed how he had to take a piece of paper and draw a family tree to keep track of all the characters. I’m afraid this isn’t what I’m looking for when I’m reading a book as I don’t have an account on If I wanted confusion to this level, I’d rather think about how to fold a fitted bedsheet or what the Harry Potter Sorting Hat does for the other 364 days of the year.

I’m not one to give up on a novel; I’ve stuck through and forced myself to read some absolute questionable one star reads, but with this, I resented every second spent on reading it when I could have been reading something much better. The thing that pains me the most is that I’ve wasted previous reading hours on this book, hours that I’m unable to get back.

Truly the worst thing I’ve ever picked up.

22 May 2017

Unfortunately, this book was not for me. I was initially very excited at the prospect of learning more about this period in history, but the philosophical references started to bore me and I thought that there were unnecessary parts which drew out the story, such as the explanations of traditional Chinese script at the beginning. I found myself thinking of other storylines which would have gripped me further than the ones presented by the author. I found this a very heavy read and it was hard for me to keep myself engaged with it.

21 May 2017


This is not usually a book I would pick up and buy, but as our book club were honoured to read this as part of the Bailey's prize panel I was eager to give it a chance. It started off well, there were some great descriptive passages about places that really created a picture.

However, I soon found myself confused and bored by this book.
I felt that there were too many characters which were hard to keep track of, and every time I tried to read pages of the book, I fell asleep.

Not my kind of book unfortunately, but thank you for the pages at the beginning, I enjoyed those.

21 May 2017


I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though it is dense in parts. Also, although it added some intrigue initially to not know who Ai Ming's and Marie's parents were and have to surmise it the width and depth of the novel this sort of thriller aspect was unnecessary and put some people in the group off, there were enough unknown to deal with.

I love books about China, especially family histories that reveal the Cultural Revolution through the stories of the characters, I think you get more truth that way, so after reading Wild Swans and others over the years I was looking forward to this book which would cover more years. Also, I enjoyed the perspective of it being centred on a musical family and the effect of the revolution on them. Kai was interesting because we got the country and city aspect through him. I suspected, however, that younger members of the group, who had not seen the events of the student uprising on television might find it harder going because they would not have the background knowledge that sometimes comes just from having hung around for long enough. This turned out to be true.

I was intrigued by the musical references and went with them, and was also interested to find out about Glenn Gould, who I looked up on YouTube, I might even listen to the Goldberg variations sometime. I think that there was perhaps too much about the music, I got it that their lives were imbued and dominated by their relationship with music without having to have it so thoroughly impressed on me.

I was fascinated to find out what had happened at T. square in so much detail: the sympathy of the unions, of the workers, of the older people whose lives had been ruined and who found a voice through the young people at the microphones; at the time I don't think so much detail was televised and little adverse news got out of China.

I found the characters sympathetic and well drawn; the relationship between Kai and Sparrow sensitively handled, and the lack of detail about their relationships with their wives understandable. The intensity of the relationship between Marie and Ai Ming was a little fast, but that can happen with young people.

I also loved the details about Chinese characters, the different concepts of time and space, the relationship between music and maths.

It is interesting to reflect that now China has 'opened up' it would seem that there is the same corruption in the police and government as there ever was with the same cavalier treatment of the poor despite the Cultural Revolution being supposed to make everyone equal; there seems also the same refusal to have transparency for outside eyes and the same attitude of conquering all before it, the gates are open for companies and individuals to leave and build business empires and then firmly shut before anyone can see what they've left behind.

All in all a book worth reading, and in places quite beautiful, but I can understand how it seemed to other members of the group to come from a place of inside knowledge of China and music and Chinese attitudes to language and life which made it almost inaccessible - ironically an approach which seems to be very Chinese in character.

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