Shortlisted 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.