Too often, Western media and art depict modern China as a 1984-inflected Bizarro-world of conformity and cruelty gone mad, with little sense of the prToo often, Western media and art depict modern China as a 1984-inflected Bizarro-world of conformity and cruelty gone mad, with little sense of the private lives that struggled to endure amidst one of the most dramatic and far-reaching social and political revolutions in history. Where those forms have so often failed, Madeleine Thien’s novel, simultaneously an elegy for and celebration of China’s complexity, fragility, and historical memory, seems to make up for lost time and then some. Thien takes the multi-family, multigenerational epic form refined by the Russian greats and fills in its lines with brilliant, luminous colour. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is both intimate and sweeping, personal and political, and most of all, completely devastating and filled with immense hope.
Thien’s narrator is Marie, a Chinese Canadian whose father committed suicide in Hong Kong for unknown reasons before the novel’s beginning in the early 1990s. Soon after, Marie and her mother welcome Ai-ming, who is escaping some “trouble” in China that Marie doesn’t quite understand. The inscrutability of the circumstances surrounding Marie’s family come into focus slowly and painfully over the course of the novel, though Marie is not the central character. Instead, Thien uses both Marie and several handwritten notebooks found among her father’s personal effects after his death titled “The Book of Records,” a meandering narrative with no beginning or end, as a sort of framing narrative. The Book of Records also functions as an important symbol within Do Not Say and encapsulates the spirit of the novel without. Do Not Say focuses on Sparrow, his friend Kai and cousin Zhuli; his uncle Wen the Dreamer and aunt Swirl; Big Mother Knife, Ling, Ai-ming and Yiwen, and finally Marie, as the long arm of revolution forcefully molds each of them, over and over, into unexpected people. The different artistic gifts of the characters—Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli’s musical talent, Wen’s devotion to the written word—mark them as particular targets during Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
Thien’s breathtaking prose means that this book is not a skim. Under the stultifying atmosphere of Mao’s cult of personality and the repression to which all—its adherents, repudiators, and otherwise—are subjected, Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli question both their individual and collective senses of self when they are stripped of the music they love so much. Their actions draw out similar questioning in the characters each of them touch, who must continuously find ways to forgive, change, and carry on. In Thien’s hands, this questioning is tragic and difficult. The brutality of the Red Guards and the rising tide against the decadence of Western cultural forms are shattering to read. But resilience, and personal power have their places, too. The chapters set around the Tiananmen Square protests are some of the most evocative and powerful I’ve ever read.
You don’t need to be intensely familiar with the twentieth-century history of China for this book to do its most effective work; I certainly wasn’t. There is not a note of explication to be found anywhere, yet the figures and historical transitions come through clearly. (Do Not Say may prompt you to start learning more, as it did for me.) While the novel takes about a hundred pages to really gain momentum, the moment the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, the reader is more than rewarded for her patience. Reviewers have thrown around so many clichéd adjectives to describe the beauty of Do Not Say, but they all fail to measure up to what is written between the lines of this novel: time and history move ever on, somehow forward, somehow cyclical, leaving individuals at the crossroads of victimhood and responsibility. ...more