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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

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Madeleine Thien's new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations--those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.

At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow's ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai's daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.

With maturity and sophistication, humour and beauty, a huge heart and impressive understanding, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once beautifully intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of daily life inside China, yet transcendent in its universality.

473 pages, Hardcover

First published May 31, 2016

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About the author

Madeleine Thien

24 books618 followers
Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes (2001), and three novels, Certainty (2006); Dogs at the Perimeter (2011), shortlisted for Berlin’s International Literature Prize and winner of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis; and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), about musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s, and about the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Her books and stories are published in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, and have been translated into 25 languages.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2016 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and an Edward Stanford Prize; and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and The Folio Prize 2017. The novel was named a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2016 and longlisted for a Carnegie Medal.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,019 reviews
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
696 reviews3,262 followers
February 28, 2020
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

A young Chinese girl (Li-Ling), whose English name is Marie, is living with her mother in Vancouver when a relative from China appears at their door: a teenage girl named Ai Ming who seeks refuge after the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Ai Ming unearths a collection of notebooks written by Marie's deceased father, among which is the Book of Records - a story handwritten by Ai Ming's father. With Ai Ming's help, Maria pieces together the history of their ancestors, exploring how China's political campaigns had ramifications that lasted for generations.

With respect to the book's historical context, Do Not Say We Have Nothing boldly defies any assertions that a country's history ought to be portrayed in whatever light best suits the regime's politics. Readers who know little of Chinese history will absorb an informative account that spans from the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 to the present day. Sweeping in scope, this book unveils how the tempestuous years of Mao Zedong's political policies saw millions of lives lost to starvation, forced prison labor, and government sanctioned executions, while countless others struggled to survive additional methods of brutal political oppression.

She had no news of [her husband], only rumours that in the men's camp not far away, no one survived. The corpses were left in the desert, unburied. [She] would not allow herself to believe it.

Chairman Mao decreed that cities were wasteful and the education must be sent "up to the mountains and down to the villages" to experience rural poverty. All universities and middle schools still open would now be closed, all classes not yet cancelled were officially over.

As characters suffer the loss of autonomy, the revocation of their freedoms, and the destruction of their families, they ask questions and explore revelations that are as agonizing as they are universal.

"If some people say what is in their hearts and other people say what glides easily off the tongue, how can we talk to one another? We will never find common purpose."

Gradually, a figurative tapestry of Maria's ancestral history emerges with music acting as the thread that stitches every memory in place. At the onset of Mao's Cultural Revolution, some of Maria and Ai Ming's relatives are gifted composers and musicians (Kai, Sparrow, and Zuhli). When Maoist politics make their love of music a danger that puts them at risk of persecution, Kai, Sparrow, and Zuhli mourn the loss of their beloved artistry and struggle to accept their new lives under totalitarian rule. The author brings a musical cadence to every description of listening to or playing music, giving the narrative an overall symphonic quality.

That night, it stormed. As Sparrow played for them, the tap-tap of rain needles percolated into the music, interfering with the notes, muffling some and enlarging others, as if the downpour had a mind of its own and conducted the entire field of sound within and without the two-gabled house.

She did not know how to tune the instrument but quickly settled on a harmony that seemed to suit both the strings and herself. [. . .] The sounds it made were otherwordly, and had more in common with punctuation than with words.

While the book succeeds in being historically poignant and reverent of music (particularly classical music), it struggles in terms of character and pacing. The long list of characters can be difficult to keep straight, a task made more complicated by some characters having multiple names. A bemusing timeline that leaps forward and backward without preamble heightens the challenge of maintaining a comprehensive grasp of who, what, where and when.

After wading through a bewildering list of characters and a ping-pong timeline, the book's apex hits at an inevitable historical event. This scene has the potential to be tense with high stakes if the reader is fully invested in the characters, but with so many character stories to tell in a limited number of pages, only a surface-level relationship is formed with the characters, and the climax subsequently falls flat.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious yet tedious account of two families ravaged by Mao Zedong's revolution.
Profile Image for Brina.
887 reviews4 followers
August 13, 2017
My endless quest to discover quality books written by women of color from around the globe has lead me to the writing of Madeleine Thien. Thien is a Malaysian-Chinese living near Montreal and has previously written a novel and short story collection. Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Governor General Prize for 2016 and was short listed for the Man Booker Award. An epic novel using music as a background, Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows three generations of Chinese revolutionaries to detail how history repeats itself.

Marie Jiang is an accomplished math professor living in Vancouver. When she was ten years old, her life was turned upside down as her father made an unexpected trip to Hong Kong and then took his life there. This occurred in the midst of the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 as Chinese either took part in revolutionary activities, stayed put, or attempted to flee to the west. Marie's father had attempted to sponsor a daughter of a friend who desired to study in Canada, hence the meeting in Hong Kong. Eventually, this young woman named Ai-Ming arrived at Marie's home and became an older sister to her. The two of them uncovered a manuscript entitled The Book of Records, which had originally been written by Ai-Ming's great grandfather Old West and copied many times, and shows how the two families are interconnected.

Ai Ming's father Sparrow was the best piano composer that China had seen in over a decade. With influences such as Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Gould, Sparrow devoted himself to his sonatas and symphonies, often times sleeping in his room in the Shanghai Conservatory. This was made necessary because his mother Big Knife was often times traveling the countryside in search of adventure, while his father Ba Lute was a member of the Red Guard as were his brothers, and Sparrow's situation epitomized how the revolution divided families. Sparrow's aunt and uncle Swirl and Old Wen were reclassified and forced to wander the desert for years. They sent their only daughter Zhuli to live with Sparrow's family in Shanghai in hopes that she would be safe there. Among her only possessions was a copy of The Book of Records, and, over time, she would go on to become an accomplished violinist.

The majority of the book is a past record of Ai Ming's family as recorded in The Book of Records, but each chapter moves to present time as Ai Ming teaches Marie enough of the Chinese characters to decipher the opus for herself. In Canada, Marie's parents were secretive of their life in China, and Marie was very much a westerner. She had been unaware that her father Jiang Kai had been an accomplished conductor and composer in his own right, as he had been a student of Sparrow, and later a conductor of the Beijing Central Philharmonic. Once in Canada, music no longer became the center of his life, and his one desire became to bring Sparrow and his family to safety in the west. When this fell through, he became sullen and despondent. Marie uncovers the past through The Book of Records and learns of the rich history of her family, eventually devoting herself to math the way her father gave his life to music, while also enjoying a relationship with Ai Ming similar to the one that their fathers had at the Shanghai Conservatory.

Thien's prose is musical with excerpts of sonatas, symphonies, and poetry throughout. While the words flowed on the pages, it took me until a third of the way through the novel to become devoted to the characters. The main protagonists Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli do not take over the story until after page 150, so, until I reached this point, I admit to slow reading. Once the bulk of the novel switched its focus to these characters, the plot combined with luscious prose took off. Thien has named her novel from a line in The Internationale as young revolutionaries demand rights from their government, yet point out, "do not say we have nothing;" do not say that we have no rights. This epic novel intimately shows three generations of Chinese revolutionaries in Big Knife Mother, Sparrow, and Ai Ming. In each case history begins to repeat itself, and each generation turns to both western musicians and The Book of Records to get them through to safety, as they put a bit of themselves into their compositions in hope that others would discover their hidden messages.

Madeleine Thien is a new author to me and at first glance appears to be a gifted novelist. Weaving in music, expert prose, past, and present, it is little wonder to me that her novel won the Governor General Award and was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. Thien has another novel due out soon. If the prose is anything like Do Not Say We Have Nothing, readers should be in for a treat. Thien's novel of modern Chinese history rates 4+ stars, and once I got into it was a pure joy to read.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,921 reviews35.4k followers
June 13, 2017
Once again: Many Thanks to modern technology and the Public Library!
I was nervous about reading this book last year. The low reviews feed into my own insecurity that this book would become too complicated and I'd get frustrated.
The high reviews kept nagging at me.

Actually Michael's review inspired me most!!!

Rather than purchase the book, I downloaded the ebook from the library from the comfort of home.
There were times when reading Madeline Thien's novel, I found myself remembering two other books which I have a special spot in my heart for. Adding this book makes a lovely triangle-affair! The other two books are:
"Mao's Last Dancer" by Li Cunxin -- the adult version - [not the teen version].
"The Distant Land of My Father", by Bo Caldwell

"Do Not Say We Have Nothing", is a PHENOMENAL NOVEL!!!
It begins in Vancouver in the early '90's with 10 year old Marie Jiang telling the story. She discovers her family history through the brutality and tribulation of the cultural revolution.
Al-Ming escapes from the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 - and comes to live with the wife and daughter of Kai Jiang. Kai had been a piano student of Al-Ming's father, Sparrow. Shortly after Kai had left for Hong Kong, he committed suicide.
Marie and Al-Ming develop a friendship piecing together the links between both of their fathers.
Al- Ming will leave Canada -go to San Francisco-then New York - then back to China.

Sparrow was a brilliant composer and taught at the Shanghai conservatory. His aunt and uncle: Wen the Dreamer and Swirl were sent to re-education camps as part of the communist movement. Their daughter Zhuli, was sent to live with Sparrowand his family. Zhuli was a violinist. Kai was Marie's father.....so we see how music was the strong tie that connected both families. Students at the conservatory were often abusive in thought of each other for not playing the right type of music. Amazing how judgemental young musicians were with each other. But the way I saw it.... they were each just a perfectionist.

We get an overview about the Japanese Invasion, The Great March, and the insights about Tiananmen Square protests were all eye opening.

A thread running throughout the story is "The Book of Records". "The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, and private places.
By the time we discover them it's too late".
There were a number of chapters of an unidentified book---that had been reprinted by hand--these messages were often passed down almost in code -- to those who rejected the communist rule.

Three stories merge together giving us a panoramic view how much communism influenced every facet of life -- politics. music, literature, relationships, and love.

The characters are marvelous! Great names too: Sparrow, Kai, Wen the Dreamer, Swirl, Big Mother Knife, etc.

The writing is EXCEPTIONAL... MUSICAL AT TIMES... transferring music into numbers.... lyrical... bilingual at times - giving us small samples of the Chinese language

What I was left with in the end. Time heals somewhat. Scars fad....but history leaves tattoos which are permanent.

This was a heartbreaking and lovely novel!! BRILLIANT and AMBITIOUS to boot!!!!!
Profile Image for Jaidee .
572 reviews1,071 followers
December 19, 2021
5 "profound, elegant, eloquent, devastating" stars !!

The 2018 Gold Award (Mostest favorite Read)

Unexpectedly, she sang a line of notes, and the music, as natural to her as breathing, contained both grief and dignity. It seemed to expand inside my thoughts even as it disappeared; it was so intimate so alive, I felt I must have known it all my life

A wonderful quote to begin my brief review as it is close to expressing the entirety of my experience of this most extraordinary book. Extraordinary is one of those overused adjectives and yet how else to describe this masterpiece.

Ms. Thien takes all of us on a journey of collective trauma, search for meaning, acts of sacrifice and love and a history so convoluted and brutal that it defies understanding. We follow two Chinese families back and forth in time as they try and make sense of the rise of Communism, the reign of Mao, the Tiannanmen square massacre, exodus to Central Asia, the US and Canada. It is however not just about these macro issues. The book is permeated by interior worlds of beauty, self-criticism, philosophy, desire and despair. We have interpersonal interactions both brutal and divine.
We have mathematics, language, literature and most of all Classical and Chinese music. We have tradition, collectivism and anarchy. We have torture, murder and on the more romantic side unconsummated love.

Ms. Thien does not know how to stop being eloquent and important and most of all empathic to all of these lovely characters who do their best to right China's inequities with movement to the extreme left which in many ways are no different than fascism. This book shook me to my core and transported to experience in a safe way what life is like in a totalitarian regime and how people do their very best to love, to live, to breathe.

I could go on and on but I won't. I want you to read this book. I want you to be shaken. I want you to take action in small ways to help and understand those people from oppressive regimes that try and rebuild their lives in safer lands. I want you to cry and gnash your teeth but I also want you to take a look around you and give your child a hug, your lover a kiss, savor an ice cream cone, feel the sun on your face and bask in joy.

Ms. Thien thank you for struggling to create this book. Thank you for raising my consciousness.
Thank you for helping me understand a little bit about the struggles and tribulation of modern day China.

All his life, he had slept on mats and narrow cots beside his brothers and his classmates, but for the first time he felt the intimacy of what it meant to lie beside another person. The sudden heat heat in Sparrow's skin grew shameful and humiliating but Kai did not turn away. He left his hand where it was, then he laid his palm flat against Sparrow's chest as if to hold him where he was, always at a remove yet always near. Desire, or something so small as love, was subservient to revolution; this truth he knew, but the truth Sparrow felt led to another life entirely....
Profile Image for jessica.
2,509 reviews31k followers
May 18, 2021
confession: this took me forever to read because i kept nodding off every time i picked it up. didnt matter what time it was, the pages would cause my eyes to slowly close and my mind to drift away.

and it wasnt because i was bored, but because the writing is sooo lulling and slow and gentle, as if this was a bedtime tale. the narrative is quiet and unhurried. while some may consider the novel to often meander, especially as the four different stories weave in and out, i enjoyed seeing just how connected everything is, how impactful each POV is.

its a historical fiction novel that focuses less on the actual events of history and more so on how those events affect families for generations to come. and while i do feel like i learned a lot about chinas past, i cant help but feel i learned more about the people who lived it. and i loved seeing how music played such a driving forced in those lives.

while i know this will not be a book for everyone, if you have the time and patience, i would definitely recommend it.

4 stars
Profile Image for Sofia.
266 reviews6,178 followers
August 16, 2021
Spanning multiple generations, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the tale of a large extended family and how music brought them together in times of hardship. Their story unfolds in front of the curious eyes of a girl named Marie, the child of Kai, a pianist who lived during the Cultural Revolution, one of the most horrifyingly brutal periods in Chinese history. Ritualistic torture, humiliation, and cannibalism were allowed and even encouraged, as these people were said to be "bourgeois" and needed to be "purged."

Along with Ai-Ming, the daughter of Sparrow, the brilliant composer and close friend of Kai, Marie begins to dive deeper into her ancestry and the story of the struggles of her ancestors as they fought to survive during dark times.

This book follows a long list of characters, including Kai, Sparrow, and Zhuli--a gifted violinist--who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Brought together by their shared love of music, their paths eventually diverged as political turmoil in China drove them apart.

Sparrow's daughter Ai-Ming went on to become a student protesting in Tiananmen Square. She escaped China after the massacre and fled to Vancouver, where she lived with Marie.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a grim, quiet story. It does not delight in brutality like some books about the Cultural Revolution, but it's horrific in a private way that touches your heart more than any gore. The book unfolds gradually, and the stories of each character are linked by the end, resulting in a seamless tale.

The writing builds suspense to the point where I wasn't sure if I was at the worst part yet or if there was more to come. It's quietly depressing and very subdued. The atmosphere is solemn, heavy, and burdened. It captures the feeling of hopelessness perfectly, and as I turned the last page, I felt an emptiness inside me, a dull ache.

Each character had distinct traits that made them unique, and so the hardship they went through was painful to me as well. I didn't realize how much I cared about the characters until terrible things happened to them, and the extent to which I cared shocked me. It crept up on me.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a sweeping story of a family who, although they suffered, survived to tell the tale. It's a book about discovery and strength and love.

5 stars

To learn more about the Cultural Revolution, visit this site.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,694 reviews14.1k followers
October 5, 2016
A very powerful story, beginning with the cultural revolution and it's effects on one family, followed through to the next generation. A family that is in love with music, Sparrow the composer, young Zhuli, a musician, Kai a closer friend also a composer/musician, all at the Shanghai composer, all will be caught up in its destruction with horrifying results. Starvation, separation, the camps, people turning on people, brutality, it is all here. Following one family lets us thoroughly get to know and identify with them. Through it all are chapters of a book of records, codes hidden inside, the unifying thread throughout the story. Marie, a young woman who will years later try to put everything together. The book finishes with Tiananmen Square, the same family line and what happens there and to them.

Hard to believe that was less than fifty years ago. An amazingly centered story, based on true events, a terrible look inside Mao's China. It is hard to read this without being seriously effected oneself. Well written and well told, a hard to read story but so many suffered, so many died, the world needs to acknowledge their suffering, starting with one reader at a time.

ARC from publisher.

Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
October 13, 2017
This is a novel of epic scope and ambition, a complex family story that starts in the China of the 1950s and ends in the present day.

The pivotal events are the Cultural Revolution, and specifically the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory and the denunciations of the musicians there, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and their violent aftermath. There are also many other themes - largely musical but also some intriguing digressions on Chinese writing and mathematics.

Thien's characters are memorable and I found the book compulsively readable and moving. For most of the book I thought this was one of the best books I had read all year, but later I felt a little let down, firstly because of a glaring factual error in which she claims that Bach and Busoni were born 300 years apart (the true figure is no more than 181) and also because the story lost a little impetus and clarity of focus towards the end.

I still think it was the best book on the 2016 Booker shortlist and would have made a worthy winner.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
February 10, 2017
I started this book as a review copy eBook, and finished it with the print from the library (which I think we got from the UK based on the cover art.)

This book is complex and I really enjoyed it. I suspected it could win the Man Booker Prize based solely on its description, and I was not disappointed. I am a sucker for music discussed in fiction, so the central theme of music really did the trick for me. I discovered only later that many of the characters and events surrounding the conservatory were real events that actually happened! This article from The Guardian delves into some of those details. I was dithering between four and five stars but discovering the depth of research pushed it easily into five stars.
"How had he never noticed, Sparrow thought tipsily, just how deeply music could lie?"
The form of the novel itself seems to be somewhat musical, repeating themes, circling back around to previous events or movements, ending where we begin. It's a symphony. An opera. Something like that. This allows the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, aka "the June 4th incident," to be the climax of the work. The narrative moves between generations, but also between various locations in China and two eras in Canada.

The rural parts of the novel, the small Chinese communities with specific characters, and everyone trying to survive, reminded me of the novels of Mo Yan (recent winner of the Nobel Prize.) I just kept thinking of the spring onions in one of his novels, the last sustaining growing thing. But when it comes to Tiananmen Square, I don't know if I've ever felt such a connection to the growing disillusionment experienced by the Chinese people, and what led to that day.
"The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last."
Another thread running through the novel is this book of records, a book left by the narrator's father, and the various ways that this carries the details of the stories is best left to the discovery of the reader. I liked the tangent this spun off into and how it came back together in the end.
"We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined there were truths waiting for us - about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in- within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them."
Profile Image for John Mauro.
Author 4 books323 followers
March 2, 2023
History matters.
Goddess of Democracy

"Do Not Say We Have Nothing" is Madeleine Thien's ambitious third novel spanning three generations of a Chinese family. The family's history is deeply intertwined with both the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

During the Cultural Revolution, we follow a group of classical musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory, who are persecuted for their art. One of the characters writes several symphonies but is afraid to share them due to retaliation from the Communist Party. One of his symphonies is left unfinished due to the events of the Cultural Revolution.

The most moving and enlightening part of the novel, at least for me, is the part chronicling the events of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The brutality of the Chinese Communist Party has not softened at all since the days of the Cultural Revolution. They will stop at nothing to preserve their total grip on power.

Goddess of Democracy

The image that is most seared into my mind is that of the Goddess of Democracy (see photos above), constructed by the pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. This statue represented freedom and liberty against the oppression of the Communist Party. Of course, the statue was destroyed by the Communist soldiers within days as they brutally crushed the protesters, who were mostly students.

We see the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, both in terms of those directly involved and the impact on the next generation. Here we follow the main point-of-view character, Marie, a young Chinese-Canadian girl in Vancouver who is trying to understand the loss of her father and the tumultuous history of her family as a whole.

"Do Not Say We Have Nothing" left a permanent mark on me. We are all products of generations of history. As much as certain governments may want to erase that history, we can never truly escape it.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,498 followers
November 18, 2016
A moving family saga that portrays the lives of three generations through the post-war decades in China. The story interlaces different time points with a focus on the crucial periods of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1969-1977), set mostly in Shanghai, and of the time of the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and their brutal suppression (1989-1990). Like good historical fiction it does bring the cultural and political paroxysms of these times alive through engaging characters, some of whom adapt by compromises, some roll with the punches, and others fall by the wayside or are crushed. But more than that this book is a treasure for the way Thien integrates her characters across time into a single tapestry.

Along the way, she stunned me often by the fertile constructions of her characters that lift them out of the rivers and vortices they find themselves in. You know you’re on to something good when you bookmark special passages a lot (over 80!). A lot of these deal with personal responses to or devotion to creating music. Thien is quite the wizard at modeling what music means as a lens on human reality. A lot of other epiphanies relate to what I think of as the illusion of reincarnation, where characters in different time frames appear to be the same, or doppelgangers in a parallel universe. The latter sense comes from the inspiration many of the characters find from reading chapters of a hand-copied historical adventure novel by an unknown author, the Books of Records. This is not to say this book is imbued with magical realism or philosophical allegory. Instead the lives of the characters and their actions are totally realistic and it’s only their imagination that allows them to soar above the brutal realities of their existence.

We start with perspective from the modern day with our main narrator, Marie (Li-ling), an academic mathematician in British Columbia who seeks to fill the huge gaps in her knowledge of her family history in China. Her musician-composer father, Kai, brought her as a child to Canada from China in 1979 but shared little about his past. A decade later he left her mother to reside in Hong Kong and later died from an apparent suicide. Before her father’s move out of her world, there was a period where Marie had got to learn a lot about her father’s early days as a music student from the daughter of his former teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory. This woman, Ai-ling, was fleeing China because of her participation in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and came to stay with the family for several months before successfully disappearing into the U.S.
When Marie was 11, Ai-ling at 17 captivated her with her confidence and beauty and bonded with her as a virtual sister. Together the two come to appreciate how there was a special love between Kai and Ai-ling’s father, Sparrow. The book draws out the story they put together of their entwined families and the huge role that music played in that history. Later in the book, we will follow Marie’s quest to find Ai-ling and learn more from remnants of Sparrow’s family and those who knew them.

The cast of characters and their collusions and concerns make for quite a delicious stew, though at times hard to keep track of. We learn much of the story of Sparrow, a brilliant classical music composer on the faculty at Shanghai Conservatory, and Wen, his uncle by marriage and an aspiring poet who takes up residence in the country as a farmer and landlord with his wife Swirl (Sparrow’s aunt). We get the backstory of how Sparrow’s mother, Big Mother Knife, and Swirl survived the civil war and famines in the post-war years as singers and entertainers in tea houses and dance halls. We learn how Wen courted Swirl using a transcribed chapter of the Books of Records to woo her. When the Cultural Revolution comes, both Sparrow and Wen and their families are targets of the empowered proletariat for punishment and brainwashing as counter-revolutionaries. After a period of living in a primitive hut, Wen and Swirl end up on the run in the hinterlands of Mongolia and Krygystan under false identities, leaving their daughter Khuli to the care of Sparrow. She becomes devoted to music and a hero to young Marie. But when Mao encourages the dismantling of universities as the bastions of elitism and privilege and all the instruments and books are destroyed, Sparrow takes up factory work and Khuli is emotionally wrecked. In the “struggle sessions” of beatings and forced confessions, all are pushed to the limit. Kai chooses to join the Red Guard and eventually gets a position with the Beijing Philharmonic, which survives because of Madame Mao’s protection.

The life threads of a dozen or so characters are easier to hold and behold when they fall into certain patterns. It turns out that Sparrow, Kai, and Wen have a common otherworldliness in their personalities, with the ability to concentrate on their respective crafts of music and writing despite the throes of society around them. But each were led to a different outcome over choosing among silence, collusion, or exile from the thought police. And Zhuli, Ai-ling, and Marie can all be seen to be refugees at various points from the chaos and family splintering in their respective societies and times. Again they make different choices, but each puts heart and soul into forging meaning for their families from the madness of history and circumstance.

More than any book I know, the practice and purposes of music invests almost every aspect of this book. At times it delves into connections with mathematics, the nature of time, and the window or frame of silence and zero points of self and history. In the following I share some details and quotes to convey how elegantly these themes play out.

Music overflowed from everything he saw. If it ended, he would have no idea how to make sense of the world.

Such was Sparrow’s view, whose ties to music began at tender age from singing at his mother’s performances with his Aunt Big Sister. Ai-ling recalls for Marie how she heard that the lyrics of thousands of songs crowded out potentially traumatic memories of the Nationalist Revolution after the war. His own father projected that a beautiful song would always be appreciated by the “People” of the new communist order. But as he advances into the profession and a position at the college, his first symphony comes into criticism by the Party-controlled Union of Composers for “formalism and useless experimentation” and “the solemnity of the third movement did nothing to elevate the People”. He continues to inspire students like Kai and his cousin Zhuli, but struggles with his second symphony, hoping to find a path like Shostakovich did under the Soviet regime (as featured in Barnes’ recent novel “The Noise of Time”). But when the Cultural Revolution comes, all composers are considered an elite class to be leveled, he stops trying to create it. The beatings and forced confessions make him feel guilty for his privilege:
My pride was so great that I imagined I would land in the room where Bach lived …and I would show what it meant to me. They would hear it. They would hear Bach in me, they would know that he was mine.

As a factory worker, the language of music devolves into sound itself versus silence:
Inside Sparrow, sounds accumulated. Bells, birds and the uneven cracking of trees, loud and quiet insects, ones that spilled from people from people even if they never intended to make a noise. …Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because sound made no absolute claim on meaning. …

He’d been thinking about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and the planets, making them invisible to human eyes. If one needed the darkness in order to see the heavens, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?

Still, music comes to transport him in dreams:
The seventh canon of Bach’s Goldberg Variations rolled towards Sparrow like a tide of sadness. Sparrow wanted to step out of the way but he was too slow and the noted collided into him. They ran up and down his spine, and seemed to dismantle him into a thousand pieces of the whole, where each part was more complete and more alive than his entire life had ever been.

Zhuli has her own journey with music, starting with Sparrow’s teaching her at 11 how to listen:
Inside her head, the music built columns and arches, it cleared a space within and without, a new consciousness. So there were worlds buried inside other worlds but first you had to find the opening and the entryway. …She felt, as with the qin, that she had always known this music. That they recognized one another.

Her devotion to music is blocked, and she survives her own “struggle sessions” at the hands of fellow students who judge her as the fruit of her traitorous father Wen. Bearing witness becomes a lonely stance:
After this, she felt she understood everything. Music began with the act of composition but she herself was only an instrument, a glass to hold the water. Animals, she thought, do not weep. Instead they never look away.

Khuli sees how the director of school survives a long time by compromise:
She wanted to ask him how he could acquiesce on the surface and not be compromised inside. You could not play revolutionary music, truly revolutionary music, if you were a coward in your heart. You could not play if your hands, your wrists, your arms were not free. Every note would be abject, weak, a lie.

The world of silence comes to have an allure for her as with Sparrow, to whom she wants to convey:
She knew she was guilty, but she could not confess. She had given every bit of her soul to music …the quiet would show her the way out. Silence would expand into a desert, a freedom, a new beginning.

She becomes too mute to share the form of truth she has found:
Haven’t you understood yet, Sparrow? …The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence , too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.

In sum, she becomes the lightening rod of moral consciousness in the tale. She knows that actions of cooperation like Kai engages in will face some kind of reckoning in time.

Book of Records
The role of the Book of Records in this novel is more elusive for the reader, and subject to many interpretations. Much is sketchy about its contents. We are told how it features an adventurer named Da-wei who sets sail to America and a heroine named May Fourth who walks across the Gobi Desert. How it is so compelling a tale that chapters are copied and passed around by hand and hidden because of the perceived subversiveness of its story, which makes heroes of those who escape the powers of an unjust government. To one character, the people “trapped inside the book reminders her of people she tried not to remember”. For another character, the reaction is especially haunting:

There were moments so piteous, she wanted to slam the book shut and close her eyes against the images, yet the novel insistently pulled her forward, as if its very survival depended on leaving the past and the dead behind.

The book is unfinished, so the fate of its characters is uncertain, likely still being written somewhere. Big Mother has the sense that it somehow points a way forward:
She said it was like reading a letter from the future, or talking to someone who has turned their back on her.

Zhuli here shares with Sparrow a similar sense of a special connection of the serialized tale to their reality:
“I have this idea that …maybe, a long time ago the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived. That’s why it seems so familiar to us now. The future is arriving. We’ve come all the way to meet it.”
“Or maybe,” he said, “it’s we who keep returning to the same moment.”
“Next time we’ll meet in another place, won’t we, Sparrow?”

Linearity of time
Marie, the mathematician, has some doors open in her mind upon hearing Ai-ling’s accounts of her experiences in China up to 1990:
How we map time, how it becomes lived and three-dimensional to us, how time is bent and elastic and repeated, has informed all my research, proofs, and equations.…Near the end, she seemed almost to forget that I was there and it was as if the story came from the room itself: a conversation overheard, a piece of music still circling the air.

By 2016, Marie is torn over what path to take is searching out the truth she seeks, and she begins to see loops in time:
Look forward or look back? How could I find Ai-ming and also turn away from my father? Or did she think both acts were the same thing? It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting center. …I think it’s possible to build a house of facts, but the truth at the center might be another realm entirely.

Zhuli in her anguish over her fate had these insights about the connection of music to time and history:
But what was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colors, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. …Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations? What was chronology and how did she fit into it? How had her father and mother escaped from time, and how could they ever come back?

An old orchestra musician involved in dissemination of chapters of the Book of Records has a sense of life as copying and recycling:
The things you experience are written in your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation and even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returned to the earth, all we have on this earth, all we are is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons … but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my miniscule life to the act of copying.

Tiananmen Square was designed in 1949 to reflect the mathematical zero point for the future history of the communist People, based on ideas from Engels. Big Mother on a train trip to find her “disappeared” sister and brother-in-law, skewers such an analogy to history:
If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like the desert, both finite and infinite?

The power of language
We get many little lessons about the flexibility in meaning of the calligraphic variations in Chinese script, as for example:
A symbol for gate when used as a root or radical changes meaning in dramatic ways. If a sun shines through, the word is space. If there is a horse inside the gate, there is an ambush, a mouth, a question; an eye and a dog, you have quiet.

The power of Mao’s words were so potent they could reshape society, as when he proclaimed the new regime of the People to the crowd at Tiananmen Square in the 60s:
The words wrapped like a filament around every chair, wrist and plate, every cart and person, pulling their lives into a new order.

Wen was able to use characters in his copies of the Book of Records to encode secret messages and to record the names of those killed by the regime:
He would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts. …
‘This is my fate,’ Wen the Dreamer told me. ‘To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.

Zhuli at one point is struck by the ironies of a stanza from the communist anthem, The Internationale:
Arise, slaves, arise!
Do not say that we have nothing,
We shall be the masters of the world!

Because of the title phrase of this book, I had to seek out the substantial differences from the version familiar to English speakers, as translated literally from the 19th century French creation:
Enslaved masses, stand up, stand up.
The world is about to change its foundation
We are nothing, let us be all.

There are a number of translated works that cover the ways people were caught up in the huge events of stages in the communist regime in China. I have only had the pleasure a couple that spanned the land reforms of the early phases and the Cultural Revolution (Yu Hua’s “To Live” and Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem”). Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” also covered these phases. I understand “Wild Swans” and “Red Azalea” are also worthy memoir reads. Thien’s work is a great complement to such work, even superceding them by elucidating the events of Tianenman Square in 1989 and its aftermath. It is both an old-fashioned realistic epic and a masterpiece to me for its success in revealing the powers of music for fulfilling humanity’s ambition to forge meaning out of life.

This book was provided for review by the publisher through the Net galley program.

Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews625 followers
August 9, 2016
I think there's always one book on Man Booker Long List that requires me to get a piece of paper and draw a family tree so that I can try to keep track of the relationships between the characters. I had to do that here and it's quite a demanding read not only because of the number of characters but also because the narrative jumps around in time following 3 generations through 3 momentous periods of Chinese history.

Earlier this year, I read The Four Books when it was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize and there is some overlap between that and this as both have The Great Leap Forward as dominant themes. In Thien's book, though, it is just one of the time periods under examination.

So, why have I given this book 5 stars? For the first two-thirds of the book, I was thinking it was a possible 4-star book: the writing is excellent, the characters are believable, the story is emotionally engaging. Then we have the final third of the book and everything goes up a level. I had to hide away in a different room in the house so that I could read it undisturbed and without a break: I was completely pulled into the drama, tension and emotion of it.

I've seen a couple of reviews saying the poetry and music in this make it a difficult read. I have to say that I didn't get that at all. The main characters are all musicians, it's true, and The Goldberg Variations make multiple appearances. Perhaps it is because I have a working knowledge of music theory, but I didn't think there was anything tricky about any of the musical discussion. Thien writes beautifully about music and its effect on people who love it.

There's another topic under investigation in this complex book. There's a book within the book which is a "work in progress" all the way through. How it develops and why is a central part of the story. Thien talks a lot about the power of language and there are many examples of the way the Chinese language is constructed and how words can be built from other words and changed to different words with just a stroke of a pen. In her examination of both music and literature, it seems to me that a key quote is: "Why did Busoni transcribe Bach? How does a copy become more than a copy? Is art the creation of something new and original or simply the continuous enlargement, or the distillation, of an observation that came before?"

Just a beautiful, powerful, thought-provoking and intelligent book. I loved it.
Profile Image for Dolors.
524 reviews2,177 followers
January 12, 2019
Canada, 1990. Marie and her mother welcome a young, mysterious woman called Ai-ming, who has fled China after the protests in Tiananmen Square. Marie listens to the story of Ai-ming’s family in revolutionary China with awe; wondering where their point of connection might be; from the tea houses full of people in the early days of President Mao's rise, to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events that led to the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing; not knowing how close the tragic destiny of the two families are.

This is a story of idealism, music and revolutionary violence that combines the detail of a family saga and the rigor of a well-researched historical novel. Love for classical music prevails over the fight during the relentless Cultural Revolution and allows the protagonists of this sad story to remain faithful to each other, even when the compositions they love have been banned, their instruments destroyed and their virtuosity considered as moral weakness and betrayal of the People.

It’s impossible to deny that Madeleine Thien writes with exquisite sensitivity, without neglecting the moral complexity of her characters, but I was a bit overwhelmed, sometimes even lost amidst the implacable portrayal of the Chinese political regime and its timeline. I also felt the characters didn’t fully display the traumatic legacy that burdened their silences; at times they reminded me of mere chroniclers of historical events. Even though the novel is an evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and a meditation on individual’s ability to resist in times of cultural impoverishment, I couldn’t for the life of me, feel connected or identified with the characters’ angsts and passions, present or past. Even though I am sure I am at fault, I can’t help feeling the time I invested in this novel didn’t come with the expected reward of vibrating with every page turned, every fate met, every song annihilated by the dark side of humanity.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,396 followers
October 23, 2016
There is much to admire in what Thien tried to do in this 2016 Booker- shortlisted novel, and judging from the laudatory reviews, she must have succeeded. Personally, I struggled against the style of this novel, which I found cloying, despite the fact that different members of one family each had pieces of the story to tell. I have yet to find the author who can tell me a Chinese fiction that I really enjoy, except for classics like the Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) and Journey to the West, which have always held me in thrall.

The period of this novel, from the end of the revolution through the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen is almost impossible not to find interesting as straight history because of the wrenching societal upheavals, personal traumas, the hugeness of the country, and pace of change. What Thien did was to put a face and family history through that trauma and connect that history to the great Chinese migration east, to the West.

Her lens was a good choice for the story she chose to tell, musicians who played western instruments and music, for it is they who were targeted during the Cultural Revolution most harshly, along with other specialists in western thought or sciences. The part about getting “sent down” to the countryside was not as thoroughly fleshed out as it could have been, but she included details which placed many friends and colleagues in far reaches of China long after that decade passed. The dislocation and missed opportunities were apparent in the lives of those she spoke of who had returned, to some extent, to their old lives. The interpretation of western music by Chinese is a fascinating thread that could have been a story in itself, another frustration. Thien's story is both too big and too small.

The Book of Records was a strangely effective tool, if I understood it correctly, to tie together the lives of those past and future, and the samizdat quality of appearing and disappearing chapters had an authentic feel. Citizens had a real fear of the reach of the state. The scenes before and during the Tiananmen incident also had an immersive, completely authentic quality. When Thien talked about the buildup to June 4 on college campuses, the innocence of the students, the terror of the parents, the gradual buy-in by the factories and universities from around the country, and the euphoria, these details rang true.

So why was it difficult for me to listen to this novel? It could be the uncomfortable sense of listening to heartstrings, or perhaps it was the Western connection. This was a nation ripping itself to pieces. Pity is not an appropriate sensation, nor is any sense of a Western mindset. There is much that was pitiable about life in that period, but perhaps it was the lack of distance, or humor, or sense of historical moment that I missed. These small stories against the backdrop of fifty years in the life of a nation in revolution seemed too small, or too magnified. I never felt really engaged.

The last portion about Tiananmen filled in pieces in my understanding of that time and was detailed and involving for me in a way that the rest of the narrative wasn’t. But this is what I mean about the history being much more interesting than the individual stories. Her characters didn’t matter. We are looking at this spectacle of a nation struggling between revolt and control. The individuals are swept away, a distraction to the magnificence of something on the scale of a natural disaster. It seemed too much for her tiny story, though how else could such a thing be described, except in this way? One day we may find someone who has figured that out.

Thien deserves credit for the enormity of what she attempted, successful or not. It seems that those who didn’t already know this history intimately might have found much to interest them. Those who do know China more intimately might, like me, be waiting for a work that even comes close to encompassing even a piece of the inexpressible and unfathomable hugeness of China as we know it, with no inkling of the West. It is the East that interests us, not the West looking at the East.

I listened to the Recorded Books audio production of this novel, narrated by Angela Lin. Beautiful Mandarin pronunciations were dubbed in for place and people names. There were times when I wondered if the paper copy would help me to understand the form and function of the Book of Records, the form of which I only had a hazy idea about after listening for some twenty hours. And I wondered if the paper copy had ideographs copied out, which would add to the reading experience. If one wants the immersive experience and is unfamiliar with China’s recent history, I think I would recommend the Whisper-sync option, so that one could listen or read alternately, or one after the other, perhaps, to capture all the nuance in this big, ambitious novel.

Struggling between three and four stars: three for my personal experience, and four for what it probably deserves. You all split the difference.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,551 reviews2,535 followers
October 26, 2016
Hugely surprised this did not win the Booker Prize. If, like me, you know next to nothing about China’s Cultural Revolution and the transition from Chairman Mao to successive leaders, you will learn so much. There is no denying the power of its portrayal of history. In addition, I was consistently impressed by the book’s language. Thien incorporates Chinese characters and wordplay, musical bars, and snatches of poetry and folk songs. That said, I didn’t always find this easy reading. The flashbacks can feel endless, such that I experienced Marie’s sections as a relief and wished for more of them. I had to set myself daily reading targets to get through the novel before the library due date. The themes reminded me of Julian Barnes’s fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also asks whether music can withstand political oppression.

See my full review at Nudge.
Profile Image for MisterHobgoblin.
337 reviews44 followers
August 6, 2016
Gosh this is boring. An interminable story with characters you cannot tell apart who are supposed to be fictional ciphers for a real life fictional family in Canada. Heaps of musical references and if you love Bach you might get them, but I don't. Also, interspersed with Chinese writing and poems that don't seem to add much. Creating something this dull from such an exciting period of history is an impressive achievement that has rightly been recognised by the Booker judges.
Profile Image for Britta Böhler.
Author 8 books1,843 followers
September 13, 2016
I can see why some readers love this book. The story of two (interconnected) Chinese families in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square-protests, in China, Hongkong and Canada, is certainly interesting enough. My main problem was that I didn't find the writing style appealing (and at times rather bad), and I had a hard time connecting with the characters and their lives' story, as heart-wrenching as they may be.
It didn't help that 30+ pages of my book were missing (and another 30+ pages were double) which pulled me completely out of the story after about 1/3 of the book, but I don't think my rating would have been substantially different if the book had been complete.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,327 followers
May 28, 2019
If there's one thing I love it's a multigenerational family epic from a different culture, which is an actual genre that I only sortof made up. The thing with books like this is they give you a sweeping overview of a wide swath of history in someplace like, say, China - or Korean Japan, or Chile, or whatever - without being a boring nonfiction book. This one traces Chinese history from the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, which was awful, through to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which was also awful.

This of course means a lot of characters, and since Madeline Thien has fallen into the nearly-always-bad postmodern trap of leaping timelines, it's confusing as all fuck and fairly boring for the first half or even two thirds. I got you, though, here's the plot: Kai and Sparrow are best friends and musical prodigies. Kai goes with the flow and Sparrow doesn't. Kai escapes; Sparrow doesn't. Kai & Sparrow's parents are the boring part. There's a third person, Zhuli, who forms sortof a weird love triangle because Kai and Sparrow are mostly in love with each other. The framing story follows their children. There's an imaginary book that's some sort of ineffective metaphor for art and censorship.

By the last part of the book our timelines have simplified and we're into Tiananmen Square and it's absolutely gripping, so this is one of those books that's Worth It. I didn't really know about Tiananmen Square. Did you? I guess I thought it was sortof like Kent State, you know? That was terrible; two people got killed. Well, it wasn't like that. Estimates are as high as ten thousand murdered. The weird thing about that iconic image


...that really happened, but the lesson of Tiananmen Square is the opposite of the image.

When you read about horrors like the Cultural Revolution, entire generations of entire countries smooshed, you wonder how injustice on such a large scale happened. It seems so obvious. Didn't everyone just...resist? Why do huge masses of people participate in systems that are bad for them? Well, partly it's that sometimes the government murders them by the thousands. But some people collaborate in their own oppression, as working-class whites are doing in the US now. And it's good to be reminded that they do, for whatever reason - one is tempted to think it's because The People are generally, perhaps, shitheads - and that means that the worst scenario you can think of is always a real possibility.

Madeline Thien is one of those comet geniuses who can fire off insights about Chinese symbols and music that twist your head right around. She goes off on a tangent about how the nature of Chinese characters makes time vertical and life horizontal for them and you're like fuuuuuuck, why aren't people like you ever at my parties? It's nice to have her as a guide through all these dark times. I made a Spotify playlist with all the music she talks about here - I hope you like Shostakovich, and if you don't know who that is then buckle up because he's like

You can listen to it to spice up the first 300 pages of this book, the part where you're all who the hell is this again and which timeline are we supposed to be in. After that Thien will bring the drama all by herself. It'll be awful.
Profile Image for Stacey B.
287 reviews64 followers
August 10, 2022
It was the title of the book that caught my eye.
It took a little bit of effort on my part to get through a few chapters- but this is too good to give up.
The book's focus is on the Communist Revolution in China and the Tiananmen Square protests, but
this is far from a historical fiction book as you know it. This is a lesson on living.
The writing is beautiful and intimate, telling a story of three children and their family who must make tough decisions while thinking about the ramifications.
One of those decisions, and I will leave there- is the love of music.
Profile Image for Helene Jeppesen.
685 reviews3,643 followers
May 11, 2017
This book took me forever to get through. It was written in a really dense language that didn't appeal to me, and the storyline (or storylines, I should say) were intricate and hard to keep track of.
This is a story about the Chinese revolution of the 1960s and about all of the horrible things that took place. It's told from the perspective of one-two families, through many generations, and it's told in a 'framed story' narrative which makes it necessary for you to really focus in order to keep track of everyone and everything.
To begin with, I felt invested in some of the characters, but gradually I started feeling disconnected to them. I think it was the writing style and the rather puzzling narration, but I oftentimes found myself disengaged with the story and I had a hard time picking it up again.
Having finished it now, I can definitely appreciate its message and the information it's given me on the Chinese revolution. However, after having struggled through 500 dense pages this novel didn't provide me with enough for me to actually appreciate it that much, which is a shame because it seems to be loved by a lot of people.
Profile Image for TBV (on hiatus).
308 reviews75 followers
November 28, 2019
Do you love music? Are you perhaps a musician? How would you react if music were taken away from you, if you were no longer able to listen/play/compose? Imagine a world where musical instruments are destroyed and musicians face back breaking menial labour which will destroy their sensitive hands… This novel resonates with music even when music is systematically being destroyed.

Imagine being a reader, a poet, a writer and your words are taken from you…

This is the world faced by, amongst others, an aspiring poet, a composer, a violinist and a pianist in this multi-generational saga caught up in the turbulent events of China’s recent history. ‘Do Not Say we have Nothing’ explores the very different reactions of these artistic protagonists, the outcome of their decisions, and how it affects them and their loved ones.

There are several threads to the story, and woven through this is a novel, ‘The Book of Records’, which arrives in the mail anonymously, chapter by chapter, and which becomes part of the fabric of their lives, part of their own story. ”On a muggy August night, a package arrived for Swirl in the quarters she shared with three widows. This package contained a single notebook: the shape of a miniature door, bound together by a length of walnut-coloured cotton string. There was no postmark, return address or explanatory letter: only her name written on the envelope in a square yet affecting calligraphy.”

There is a large cast of characters, and the action takes us through The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and The Tiananmen Square Protests (1989) up to the year 2016. The story takes place mostly in China, but also in Vancouver, Canada.

Another interesting factor in this (at times rambling) novel, is the digression into the examination of language and the exquisite precision and subtlety afforded by the Chinese language and its various dialects.

If music is your whole life, how do you live if it is taken away from you? If you are a wordsmith, what do you do if your words are censored or banned?


““But, Ai-ming, how can music be illegal?” The idea seemed so absurd, I almost laughed.”

“Ai-ming continued to tell me the story of the Book of Records, which was not, after all, a recapitulation of those thirty-one notebooks, but about a life much closer to my own. A story that contained my history and would contain my future.”

“Then, quiet (qù) became another person living inside our house. It slept in the closet with my father’s shirts, trousers and shoes, it guarded his Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich scores, his hats, armchair and special cup. Quiet moved into our minds and stormed like an ocean inside my mother and me.”

““The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.””

“Instead the boy lost his head to poetry. The boy was a walking cartload of books, he sat at his desk, calligraphy brush in hand, gazing up at the ceiling as if waiting for words to swallow him.”

“Big Mother walked home from the bus station, through the rowdy twilit streets, and the novel in her bag gave her a pleasant, illusory calm, as if she were leaving a secret meeting and the documents she carried could bring down systems, countries, lies and corruption.”

“When the second side ended, he turned the record over and set it playing again. The ninth variation caused Sparrow to rest his head upon the desk. All he wanted was to live inside these Goldberg Variations, to have them expand infinitely within him. He wanted to know them as well as he knew his own thoughts.”

“Time itself, the hours, minutes and seconds, the things they counted and the way they counted them, had sped up in the New China. He wanted to express this change, to write a symphony that inhabited both the modern and the old: the not yet and the nearly gone.”

“As soon as he contained it in his hand, it opened its wings and filled the sky. What musical idea stayed fixed for a year or a lifetime, let alone a revolutionary age?”

“His unfinished symphony played on in his head, unstoppable. All it lacked was the fourth and final movement, but what if the fourth movement was silence itself? Perhaps the symphony was complete after all.”

“You could close a book and forget about it, knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn’t the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.”

“She was a performer, a transparent glass giving shape to water, nothing more than a glass.”

Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
480 reviews585 followers
April 3, 2017
"As he played, he remembered standing on the round tables of the teahouses... back when he first imagined that all the world was a song, a performance or a dream, that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away."

This is the kind of book that wins awards - a multi-generational family saga, epic in scope and aspiration. Through the lens of several memorable characters, it brings to light a crucial period in Chinese history. It's a very ambitious novel. Maybe a little too ambitious.

We begin in 1989. Eleven-year-old Marie, a Chinese-Canadian girl, lives with her mother in Vancouver. She is still coming to terms with the loss of her father, who took his own life in mysterious circumstances a few months earlier. Ai Ming, a student fleeing the Tiananmen protests, arrives in Canada and comes to live in their tiny apartment. We learn that her father, Sparrow, and Marie's Dad endured a complicated existence as musicians during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Through her connection to Ai Ming, Marie begins to piece together her family history and learns about the deep sacrifices their ancestors made in order to pursue their art.

I admit that I have a very tenuous grasp of Chinese history, and I was shocked at what I learned from this book. Sparrow, his cousin Zhuli and his friend Kai are all musical prodigies - it is the air they breathe, their very reason for living. But with their love of Western composers and their audacity to perform in public, they are seen as enemies of the state, and vulnerable to all manner of punishments, including execution. As Communism strangles the country, their fellow students ask questions like: "What good is this music, these empty enchantments, that only entrench the bourgeoisie and isolate the poor?" This gifted trio are forced to make difficult, heartbreaking decisions in the face of such extreme political pressure.

I don't exactly know why, but this book never fully clicked with me. It's a demanding read, no doubt about it. The story is inhabited by a large cast, many of whom have at least two names, and there are times when the narrative struggles under this weight. It's also a bit too long, and as much as I enjoyed the characters rhapsodizing about their love of classical music, I felt that a few of these passages could have been excised. However the novel builds in power as it reaches the momentous events of Tiananmen Square, and we come to understand the pain and suffering of a nation tearing itself apart. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a challenging, thought-provoking book and an important story that needed to be told.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,155 reviews1,610 followers
March 20, 2018
The best books inspire us, transform us, educate us and awaken us. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of those books – magisterial in scope, courageous in theme, dynamic in its execution.

The story focuses on immensely talented musicians who became pawns and victims in China’s Cultural Revolution. The framework of it is based on fact: He Luting, the director of conservatory of music, was personally targeted by The Gang of Four, and yet refused to buckle under the call for self-criticisms, betrayals, and pernicious lies.

But this is not He Luting’s story – only in small part. The story revolves around a young girl Marie, who lives with her mother (her father has disappeared) in Canada. A teenager, Ai-ming, who has fled China following the Tiananmen protests shows up at their door; their fathers are somehow intimately connected. The story that evolves covers decades of tumultuous history and introduces the reader to an extraordinary cast of characters who cannot subjugate their love of music for the revolution’s demand for conformity.

That, in essence, is the story. But what elevates this book is not the plot, but the themes. One of the main teenage characters, forced to choose between the revolutionary goals and her music, wonders about another character: “…how he could acquiesce on the surface and not be compromised inside. You could not play revolutionary music, truly revolutionary music, if you were a coward in your heart. You could not play if your hands, your wrists, your arms were not free.”

The same character says, “The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music.” Music may be “nothing”, according to Chairman Mao, yet it belongs to each one, individually.

In addition to a providing piercing insights into China’s Cultural Revolution, Ms. Thien examines the themes that really matter: who are we lose our identity, our essence, our love of all that is beautiful? What happens when people can’t live where they want, love who they want, do the work they want, and pursue the passions they want? What happens to us when we throw away everything that’s dear to us? This book is intense and unsettling and also unforgettable. It deserves 6 stars.
Profile Image for Tsung.
256 reviews67 followers
July 17, 2017
Three generations in China, presented against the backdrop of three pivotal historic events: the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests (1989). The three events were featured in the story with increasing detail. The Great Leap Forward had only passing references. It was a tragedy of mismanagement at a national level which resulted in the starvation of millions. There were more details on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, where power was given to those blind with jealousy and resentment, resulting in arbitrary, unjustified, cruel and meaningless persecutions, torture and executions. Then the biggest feature was on the Tiananmen Square protests and killings.

The story also has a third layer to the generational and historical stories and that is art, primarily music. The cataclysmic events were presented from an artist’s perspective. Two of the central figures, Sparrow and Kai, were musicians/composers, and we see the impact of the political struggles on their work and lives, and on other musicians. There were numerous references to classical composers and compositions, detailed discussions on classical music which were a little bit incongruous with the direction of the book. Moreover, the motif of music did not blend in and remained like a separate track.

There are also two different storylines, one tracing the family through to 1989 and one following Marie, Kai’s daughter in Canada, who meets Ai Ming, Sparrow’s daughter from China, after the events of Tiananmen Square. The storytelling is not straightforward either, with jumps between time periods and merging of different episodes together that it is hard to tell one from the other.

There was a story within a story. It was an interesting concept of hand-copied books in an attempt to preserve them, primarily involving Wen the dreamer. This was at a time when books which were considered counter-revolutionary were being thrown into the fire. However, this story got lost along the way and suspended without conclusion.

There were a couple of etymological lessons on Chinese words scattered about the book. Interesting as they were, they were extraneous, not as though the book was translated from the Chinese language. There were also a few interesting photos thrown in for good measure.

On its themes, the focus on family is prominent. In some ways it is rather similar to Yu Hua’s “To Live” which also spans the first two of the three events and features heavily on one family. But the difference is Yu Hua’s development of the characters and relationships earn my empathy for them. Whereas Thien’s characters are pretty cold and detached.

A number of relationships were featured, but none of them made any impression, not even the three musketeers: Sparrow, his cousin Zhuli, and Kai. In fact, there was some negativity.

The relationship between Sparrow and Kai was meant to be very close, but it was not well demonstrated and pretty unconvincing.

It is a highly ambitious novel, trying to cover a lot of different themes and issues. Perhaps therein lies its failure, in that there were too many issues for Thien to cover each with enough depth. It did spark my interest to learn more about this period of China’s history.

On its style, the prose was ordinary. The attempts at metaphor were forgettable. Some did not work at all:

”He feared that he had inadvertently pushed his mother off the balance beam and that she had toppled over and fallen into the quiet.”(?)

This multilayered clothing reference did:

”She pulled on a shirt and then a sweater. Her bare skin felt as if it were waiting for something that would never happen. Nothing fit properly, she would have to alter all her clothes and re-cut everything differently. I want to live, she thought, but nobody here knows how.”

This was Ai Ming who felt she could not fit in China and was looking for further education in North America. It could also be a reference to how the country could not fit into its politics and would need to be re-cut.

There were attempts at aphorisms which had some truth but did not resonate. There was one though which stood out.

“Unlike us, these young people have literally no memory. Without memory, they’re free.”
This is one of the things which separate the generations, setting them at odds with each other. The older generation is bound by the past, the younger generation is not. This was Sparrow’s wife Ling’s comment about the rebellion by the young people. ”But what if….Those students are rebelling against us too. Against our generation, I mean…We let the Party decide our jobs, our fates, our homes and the education of our children. We submitted because…””We thought some good might come.” Sparrow’s generation bore the guilt of submission and passivity. They were conditioned to accept their fate and to a blind faith. Ai Ming’s generation had no burden for the past but had a burden for the future, a divine discontent. I wonder if the title “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is mitigation by the older generation or an anthem for the next generation.

In the end, this book could have been better. I thought that Yuhua’s “To Live” was better at capturing the ethos of the Mao-era. Nonetheless, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is a complex and challenging read and I would not dissuade anybody who might be looking to see if this is worthy of the Booker prize.

Update: Just watched a documentary & had a discussion on Tiananmen. There are many more issues that were not reflected in the story.
Profile Image for Kate.
184 reviews43 followers
October 1, 2016
If I didn't speak Chinese, I would probably have rated this very accomplished novel a 4 or even a 4.5. Unfortunately the extremely basic and strange errors in Thien's usage of Chinese, reducing a living language to mere decorative Orientalist flourishes*, left an increasingly bad taste in my mouth in light of the novel's serious (oh, and it's so, so serious) moral claim to bearing witness (from its fundamentally distanced tone through to the fussy endnoting of song lyrics FGS) and championing of the importance of Culture and Truth and Beauty and all those allcapsy uncontroversial Good Things... and served to make the book's very polished qualities seem more and more like cynical MFA-bingo prizebait (see also Rathore's excellent review on Thien's calculated style.)

*examples range from the odd choice to anglicise some parents' names in pinyin while using Wade-Giles for the son, to the twee-as-fuck 'etymologies' that ponder why the yang in 洋葱 makes for 'infinite onions' (er, the far more common and commonsensical translation of 洋 would be 'foreign' to differentiate imported round onions from the indigenous species known in English as spring onions...) and why 'woman plus sky' would be an insult (the right-side radical in 妖 isn't even 天 tien, it's 夭 yao FFS, which is duh-why 妖 is also pronounced 'yao') etc. wow. so filosofical. much Confucius say. The fact that I began learning Chinese as a hobby in my twenties and managed to pick up on and verify these suspected nitpicks with a dictionary in under a minute would suggest that there are many more such errors, both basic and profound, that demonstrate a fundamental lack of respect for the very 'material' of Thien's book.
Profile Image for Alice Poon.
Author 5 books265 followers
September 3, 2017

This is a compelling family saga spanning three generations set in one of the most tumultuous and inglorious periods in China’s recent history. It is an ambitious novel that attempts to express the heartbreaking experiences of the characters in times of painful afflictions in the abstract language of classical music. I’m giving this novel 4.3 stars.

As a total layman to the field of classical music, I am not in a position to judge whether the author’s attempt has succeeded or not. But as a reader of historical novels, I love this work and think that it excels in telling a profoundly sad story of loyalty and betrayal between friends, family love and guilt, against a backdrop of insane political struggles and human brutality during the Anti-Right Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen violent crackdown on students.

I had previously read a few non-fiction titles about this historical span: Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, The Doctor Who Was Followed by Ghosts: The Family Saga of a Chinese Woman Doctor, Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants, and Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. Those books made me vow never to read about that period again. I hesitated for a long while before finally picking up this book. While reading it, my heart was once again drowned in deep anger and disillusionment. I can never never understand why there was this non-stop repetition of human cruelty and inanity in the name of some ideological shenanigans.

I applaud Thien’s effort through her novel in reminding us yet again the ultimate futility of repression of the human spirit; an individual’s yearning for freedom of expression is only human nature.

Her writing is fluid and full of imagery. For my personal taste though, the imagery is sometimes a bit too rich.

These are passages that I found particularly affecting:

I think, you can look at a person and know they are full of words. Maybe the words are withheld due to pain or privacy, or maybe subterfuge. Maybe there are knife-edged words waiting to draw blood.

It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.

In this country, rage had no place to exist except deep inside, turned against oneself. This is what had become of her son, he had used his anger to tear himself apart.

Ba doesn’t even know how afraid he is, she thought. His generation has gotten so used to it, they don’t even know that fear is the primary emotion they feel.

Profile Image for Viv JM.
689 reviews154 followers
October 1, 2016
I think this book needs to be read slowly and savoured. It is very slow to start off with and somewhat confusing (it really would have benefited from a character list/family tree!) but perseverance pays off and overall I found it a rewarding and moving read. The scope is epic - Chinese history from the Great Leap Forward through to the Tiananmen Square massacres- told through the story of two interlinked families. There are many fascinating insights and gems along the way, particularly in relation to language, music and (to a lesser extent) mathematics.

It fell slightly short of 5 stars for me, partly because of the slowness and partly because at times it just felt a little too worthy/earnest.

I am pleased to see this made the Man Booker shortlist and would be happy to see it win, though my personal favourite would still be Hot Milk.
Profile Image for Friederike Knabe.
397 reviews153 followers
September 18, 2016
Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say we Have Nothing has totally captivated me from beginning to end and even now, more than a couple of weeks later, many of the novel's characters have stayed with me, their conversations and reflections are influencing my own. It is impossible for me to capture the many facets of this deeply moving and multi-layered, expansive canvas of a novel. Madeleine Thien's exquisitely conceived and beautifully written work is set against the background of six decades in Chinese history, from Mao's Cultural Revolution to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square drama. The author brings this politically and societally defining period vividly to life by her finely crafted protagonists and their very individual experiences and perspectives on the realities around them. By seamlessly weaving fact and fiction into one authentic and deeply affecting narrative, Thien creates what she defines as an alternative memory of history, one that concentrates on the lives of three generations of two families, a group of individuals, intimately connected through bonds of family and friendship... and their music.

Yes, music weaves through the novel as one of several guiding motives. Teachers and students at the Shanghai Conservatory find themselves drawn to classical (European) music, especially Bach. His music not only guides them in their learning, it enables expressions of emotions where words are inadequate or fail. The other major theme revolves around memory and record: how to preserve and keep alive the memory of those who are no longer with us, to record their experiences, beliefs and actions. Marie or Ma-li, the first person narrator, sums it up beautifully:

I wish to describe lives that no longer have a physical counterpart in this world; or perhaps, more accurately, lives that might continue if only I had the eyes to see them. Even now, certain memories are only growing clearer.

The novel opens with Marie living with her mother in Vancouver, Canada. She is ten when her father, Jiang Kai, leaves wife and child behind and within the year the news reaches them of his suicide in Hong Kong. Through a young Chinese woman, Ai-ming, seeking refuge at their home, Marie receives first hints of her father's life before she was born and the people he loved and was deeply connected to, among them, Ai-ming's father, Sparrow.

Marie moves in and out of the narrative flow of the novel while continuously acting as the essential bridge between past and present. Ai-ming had given her a set of notebooks that reach far back in time but also seem to be reflecting the present... As Marie's voice fades into the background whenever the story moves back in time, we nonetheless sense her ongoing search for answers about her father, his life in China and his suicide.

Three young musicians are central to the story: Jiang Kai, the successful pianist, Zhuli, the gifted violonist and, most importantly, Sparrow, the sensitive, highly respected composer. They are professional and personal friends, their relationships growing more complex with time. Sparrow, whose life we follow most closely, has the most to give and the most to lose throughout these difficult and challenging times. Since early childhood his parents had instilled in him a deep and unconditional love for music: Without a musician, all life would be loneliness... Sparrow himself believed that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away. Music was within him and he could not imagine how to live without it...

There would be so much to say about the content and the wide range of well drawn characters who enrich the novel. Suffice to add that some are based on real life individuals, others could be or even may be. Madeleine Thien's language is at times stark and spare, at others very lyrical and emotive. She has added very informative end notes to her book. They are not needed to follow the narrative, however they provide worthwhile additions enhancing our understanding.

Finally, a last word on my special fascination with Madeleine Thien's way of integrating music into the story and by the pieces of music she chose for her protagonists to play, to listen to and to discuss. At times, I stopped reading, found the piece of music that was played, e.g. Bach's Goldberg Variations (piano) or his Concerto for two violins, and listened while imagining the scene in the Conservatory of Shanghai or in somebody's modest room playing on a simple gramophone...
Profile Image for Maziyar Yf.
470 reviews218 followers
October 2, 2021
خانم مادلین تین ، نویسنده کانادایی در کتاب نگویید چیزی نداریم داستانی از تاریخ پرماجرای چین در قرن بیستم را بیان کرده ، روایت او زمانی نسبتا طولانی از تاریخ چین کمونیست ، از دوران سیاه مائو تا زمان آزادی نسبی و رفاه اقتصادی زمانه دنگ شیئائوپینگ را دربرگرفته است .
بدون شک تاریخ جذاب و فرهنگ غنی چین ، مواد و مصالح لازم را برای آفریدن رمانهایی خواندنی بر بستر تاریخ و فرهنگ آن کشور فراهم آورده است ، همانگونه که مویان با تکیه بر این دو عنصر در کتاب شاهکار ذرت سرخ ، خواننده را هم با فرهنگ چین و هم با حوادث عموما خونبار آن کاملا آشنا کرده است .
اما خانم مادلین تین در کتاب نگویید چیزی نداریم نتوانسته فرهنگ چین را عرضه کند ، شاید هم علاقه ای به این کار نداشته ، او تنها فقر ، تباهی ، خیانت و دروغ در آن دوران چین دیده ، در حقیقت او از بیرون به حوادث درون چین نگریسته والبته آنچه که نوشته بسیار مقبول خوانندگان غربی افتاده است .
خانم تین داستان دو خانواده یکی در کانادا ، زادگاه خود نویسنده و دیگری در چین را بیان کرده و به این بهانه به زندگی خلق چین در زمان مائو پرداخته ، تصفیه های خونین ، انقلاب فرهنگی در دانشگاه ، تبعید مردم به شهرها و روستاهای دوردست ، حضور گارد سرخ و ملت انقلابی در خیابانها و آزار و اذیت ملت بخشهایی طولانی داستان او را در بر می گیرند ، خانم تین قصه خود را آنقدر طولانی کرده تا سال 1989 و فاجعه تیان آن من را هم پوشش دهد .
موسیقی ، نتها و سمفونی ها جایگاه والایی در کتاب دارند ، تا جایی که خواننده ای که آثار باخ یا شوستاکویچ یا شوپن و یا چایکوفسکی را نشنیده باشد یا علاقه چندانی به موسیقی کلاسیک نداشته باشد ممکن است بخشهایی از کتاب را خسته کننده و کسالت آور بیابد .
آنچه در کتاب خانم تین غایب است فرهنگ چینی ایست ، در حقیقت به غیر از نامهای چینی هیچ عنصر دیگری از فرهنگ و سنت چین در کتاب وجود ندارد . فرهنگ غرب است که به شکلی بسیار گسترده در یک کشور شرقی انقلاب زده حضور دارد .
نویسنده تلاش بسیار کرده تا با تکیه بر خشونت و خباثت انقلاب کمونیستی چین و رهبران آن و انبوه حوادث تلخ و خونین زمان انقلاب ، داستانی مهم و اثرگذار خلق کند ، اما او موفقیت چندانی در به تصویر کشیدن سیمای چین انقلاب زده نداشته است .
در مقام مقایسه با اثر بسیار مهم و سرشار از جزئیات مویان ، ذرت سرخ ، نگویید چیزی نداریم خالی از هر گونه ظرافت و البته خشونت است ، مویان کبیر با استادی زندگی سه نسل مردمان چین را بیان کرده و دنیایی خالص چینی با زیبایی ها و خشونت های آن ساخته ، دنیایی با روابط انسانی و عشقی که همه جا حتی در دل جنگ جاری ایست ، کتاب خانم تین با تکیه بسیار بر سیاست و فجایع انقلاب و نادیده گرفتن روابط انسانی در مقایسه با ذرت سرخ ، سطحی و کم مایه به نظر می رسد .
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,074 reviews222 followers
October 10, 2016
This is a sweeping, multi-generational, non-linear epic of a story. It starts in China in the late 1960's and goes to present day. It is complicated and wonderful and my personal favorite to win the 2016 Booker Prize. These characters really got under my skin and I will be thinking about them for a long time. This is a book that I would like to reread at some point because there are just so many layers.
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