Book Review: “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” By Madeleine Thien

by Nazanin Soghrati, Blog Contributor

To be perfectly frank, I picked up Do Not Say We Have Nothing with quite high expectations. After the novel had won several prestigious prizes in Canada and was later shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I was excited to read the work that had caused so much excitement in the Canadian literary sphere. Madeleine Thien, with her wonderful and crackling prose that has a powerful poetic backbeat thumping along, did not disappoint. This work of historical fiction brilliantly weaves together the stories of 4 Chinese people: those who experienced the atrocities of the Sino-Japanese War, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and finally the second-generation Chinese immigrants.

The story itself moves almost in a circular motion: It begins with Vancouverite Marie’s laments over the suicide of her father in Hong Kong and ends with her finally forgiving him almost 20 years later, after discovering the true reason behind his tragic death. It is in between these 20 years, however, that Maries reunited with the stories of the people of her past and reaches a spiritual reconciliation with her family’s history.

All this transformation is kindled when Marie’s mother invites Ai-Ming, a university student fleeing the post-Tiananmen Massacre crackdown, to her house after the suicide of her husband. Ai-Ming and Marie, despite having grown up in vastly different environments, develop a special relationship with one other. Over time, Marie understands that their bond runs almost two generations back with their fathers having been colleagues in music school: Sparrow, Ai-Ming’s father, being the composer and Kai, Marie’s father, being the pianist.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is further fractured into subplots with the presence of Big Mother Knife, her sister Swirl, and Swirl’s husband Wen the Dreamer who experienced first-hand the brutalities of the Sino-Japanese War and later the land reform campaigns and executions of communist China.

Thien brings together these 4 generations —that of Big Mother Knife and the Sino-Japanese War, Kai and the Cultural Revolution, Sparrow and Ai-Ming and the Tiananmen Massacre, and Marie and her immigration to Canada —with a brilliance rarely found in historical novels. One can feel the innocence of Marie as she learns about her past, the ambition of Kai, and the broken hollowness of Sparrow through the pages, and witness the powerful relationships that are formed through their common interest in music. Throughout tumultuous times of war, revolution, and political uprisings — with the communist and oppressive state breathing down on the necks of citizens like an ominous shadow — music becomes the only remaining form of individualistic expression, which connects and unites these three characters.

Thien urges her readers to explore important questions throughout the story. She fearlessly scrutinizes how war and state-sponsored policies —specifically those set out by the Communist Party of China during the Cultural Revolution— molded people’s lives, tested their resilience and sent waves of aftershocks for many Chinese generations to come. The fractured subplots that blur the line between past and present deliver a powerful resemblance to Marie’s immigration experience: much of her family, too, resides in fragmented parts of the world, having been torn apart by inhumane state policies and laws.

I thoroughly enjoyed Madeleine Thien’s masterpiece. The story painfully hit home for me — I saw in Sparrow the same hollowness that I often see in my Iranian parents when they speak about their experiences of war. Even though the two groups are from two drastically different parts of the world, they were both enthusiasts of a revolution they believed would lead to prosperity, and both were fiercely disappointed by the actual outcome. Thien also aims to convey the transformative journey of a second-generation immigrant finally coming to a peaceful understanding with her past. Marie, once in deep rage at her father’s decision to commit suicide, finally understands his part of the narrative and forgives him. This understanding, this reconciliation with one’s past, lies at the centre of this virtuosic novel.

Personally, I can only admire the powerful way that Madeleine Thien spurs her readers to not only learn more about Chinese history but to further explore their own past and how their family history has been shaped over time.

Nazanin Soghrati is a junior from Ontario, Canada. Her writing has been previously recognized by Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and has appeared or forthcoming in the Rising Phoenix Review and Polar Express Publishings amongst others.

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