Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Baileys Prize under the spotlight

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world.

In this series of articles we will look at each of the six shortlisted titles in detail, but you can also see an overview of the full shortlist.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-Ming.

As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.

About the author

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Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and won the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2016 and the Governor General’s Award 2016. She is also the author of the story collection Simple Recipes (2001) and the novels Certainty (2006) and Dogs at the Perimeter (Granta, 2012), which was shortlisted for Berlin’s 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 LiBeraturpreis. Her books and stories have been translated into 23 languages. The daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal.

Get involved

Have you read Do Not Say We Have Nothing? Do you want to know what other readers thought? You can leave a review, read a review or add the book to your group’s reading list.

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What our readers thought

12 of our brilliant reading groups have been shadowing the Prize this year, alongside three dedicated Library Ambassadors. Here are some of their experiences:

BIG book club

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“It was a warm sunny evening (rare) and ‘BIG’ book club met at one of our favourite local hostelries (not rare) to discuss Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing as part of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Due to the holiday season beginning, the group was smaller than usual but that didn’t stop us having a good and rather noisy discussion in the lovely gardens. This discussion ranged from the book’s characters, the regime of communist China, the style of the author and if we liked it! The overall impression that came over was that we did indeed enjoy the book. We all agreed that the writing was poetic, lyrical and evoked the senses. This was a period of history that we knew little about and this aspect of the book was well-researched, informative, interesting and unbelievably sad.

Most of us found that this novel was a bit of a ‘slow burn’ but once we had gotten into it and worked out the characters, of which there were quite a cast, it was a sweeping, epic tale, a story within a story that was at turns emotive, thought-provoking and so sad.

So whilst we ate our yummy Bailey’s truffles, enjoyed a drink or two and wallowed in the sunshine, we concluded that the book was well worth reading and we will have all our fingers and toes crossed for this to be the winner of the 2017!”

Novel Ideas

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“Novel Ideas were incredibly honoured to be chosen to take part in the Bailey’s Prize 2017 and are apologetic that the majority of the group struggled in the reading of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. 10 of our 12 members disliked the book.

The majority of us found it hard to follow and felt that we did not have enough knowledge to understand a lot of what she was referencing, which alienated us as readers and left us feeling stupid. The novel came across at pretentious and deliberately obscure with its endless jargon. We felt like we were not allowed in a special club.

Our only member to fully enjoy it expressed that as she had lived through the time when the Chinese troubles took place, perhaps her knowledge aided her ability to see something in it that the others did not. She liked how Thien explained cultural concepts such as how Chinese people view time.

I’m afraid it was a big miss for most of us."

Library Ambassador Vicki

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“This is a very rich, textured book. It reminded me of the perennial Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

This book is set in Canada, Hong Kong, and China. In Chinese history it covers the period from the beginning of Chairman Mao up to Tiananmen Square. As such it is absolutely fascinating and a history that I had no idea about. I did occasionally lose track of who was who as it has a large cast of characters. It was moving, funny, and tragic. Not a page turner but a deeply immersive novel.

It is beautifully written and would make an excellent Book Club choice. it will stay with you for a long time afterwards. This will be high on my list."

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