Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Madeleine ThienShortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien is a multi-generational saga of two families set against the backdrop of key events in 20th century Chinese history, from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In Vancouver in the early 1990s, Chinese refugee Ai-ming comes to stay with Marie whose father Jiang Kai committed suicide in 1989 when she was ten years old. Kai, a talented concert pianist, knew Ai-ming’s father Sparrow, an equally gifted composer, when they studied music in the 1960s at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music with Sparrow’s cousin Zhuli, a violin prodigy. Through fragments from a series of notebooks and diaries, Marie searches for answers about her father and his life in China during a turbulent period of the country’s history.

The first part of this powerful and densely written book focuses on Zhuli’s mother Swirl, father Wen the Dreamer and aunt Big Mother and how Zhuli is brought up by Big Mother after her parents are sent to labour camps during the Great Leap Forward. When Zhuli studies at the Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, the music that she, Sparrow and Kai write and perform is considered to be counter-revolutionary and the persecution that follows has different consequences for all of them. The dramatic final set piece is the Tiananmen Square protests in which the younger generation including Ai-ming are directly involved in.

Much like the way in which the characters and plot of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton are mapped out according to astrological principles, the structure of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ mirrors the intricate counterpoint of a complex piece of classical music with a large cast of characters and a non-linear plot. Although the majority of the metaphors and motifs throughout are based on musical themes, the different etymology of Chinese characters, some of which have no direct translation into English, is also explored very thoughtfully.

Overall, I preferred the more satirical view of events in recent Chinese history depicted in The Four Books by Yan Lianke which I read earlier this year whereas there are very few moments of light relief in ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’. Parts of the narrative, particularly in the middle section, were slowed down considerably by long descriptions about how classical music is such an important aspect of the students’ lives, and I wonder if the brutality of the events described could have had more emotional impact if the book had been a bit shorter.

I won’t have time to read the whole Man Booker Prize shortlist but based on the books I have read so far and from what I have heard about the others, I think ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ has a very good chance of winning the overall prize this month. It is an epic, complex and challenging novel of great depth and scope, although perhaps one that might be more popular with the judges than general readers.


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24 responses to “Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

  1. I do hope you are right, this is the book I most want to win the prize. Other people I have talked to in and out of the book trade seem to think it will be His Bloody Project, which I know you haven’t had time to read yet. I wonder where you will place your choice once you have read it. Incidentally just read another blog that has elected to follow mine recommending The Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz (non-fiction).


  2. Thanks for the review. I’ve thought about reading this book since seeing it in the shortlist, but after reading your comments, I may wait. It’s not available in my library system yet, and it doesn’t sound like a book I want to buy – or possibly read.
    I’ve read only 3 on the list and may add Hot Milk; not many appealed to me this year.


  3. It sounds excellent. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I hope it’s popular with the judges cause I loved this book. But I’m struggling to write a review that sums it up adequately.


  5. I’ve heard more than one person say that they think this might win but for some reason I’ve not been tempted to read it. Perhaps your comparison with The Four Books reveals why as I suspect that would be my reaction too.


  6. It caught my eye when the longlist was out.
    I’m glad everybody’s liking it now!

    Oh you mention The Four Books! I need to read that as well. I’ve recently added it to my wish list and it was even in my basket of books on Amazon (eventually I had to take some out, and that book was among them).


  7. I came across your blog from a tweet by Book Club Mom. The title caught my attention because I’ve just finished reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I haven’t had a chance to read the other titles this year for the Man Booker, but I look forward to reading your perspective on their merits.


  8. This sounds really complex and involving – one to set a bit of time aside for!


  9. I still have yet to read this one for the Shadow Giller, but I’m thinking that I’m glad I’ve left it to the end – I may be able to take a little more time with it that way. A lot of good reviews out for this one lately!


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  11. This was one of my fsvourite reads this year. I adored it. I wish it had won


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