Do Not Say We Have Nothing — A Review

Image shows a Chinese girl wearing a red robe holding a fan with her back to the camera

“The present is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands.”

~ Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Published in 2016 to critical acclaim, Madeline Thien’s third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was awarded both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. It was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a sweeping saga of revolutionary China covering Mao Zedong’s rise to power to the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square and across the Pacific to present day Vancouver.

This complicated multi-generational story chronicles a dark era in Chinese history, where friends and families turned on each other in a frantic effort to save themselves from China’s cruel regime. It was a brutal time for the Chinese people, especially students, artists and musicians — a time when their very existence was threatened by their resistance to conform.

Central to this story are historical events including the destruction of the Shanghai Music Conservatory, the vilification of the Conservatory’s musicians and teachers, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows the lives of Sparrow, an accomplished composer, his cousin Zhuli, a talented violinist, and the brilliant pianist Jiang Kai, one of Sparrow’s most promising students. The book tells the tale of the immense loss, the unspeakable violence and the cruelty that gripped the lives of the Chinese people for over forty years.

Thien expertly weaves together family history, music, and math to explore the depths of human emotion that enable us to survive tragedy and loss. That even allows us to hold on to love and self no matter the obstacles we face.

Image by Lin Tong from Pixabay

A forgotten family manuscript, titled the Book of Records, is uncovered and details the interconnections between two families throughout the tyranny of the revolution. Thien’s luscious prose carries us through the bleakness and horrors of a history repeated across three generations. In the background, sonatas and symphonies — Bach’s Goldberg Variations for one — lend a portentous cadence to the tale.

The novel follows the characters through the decades as each survives the devastation in their own way. The story travels back and forth in time, moving from Shanghai to Beijing to Vancouver, chronicling the history of the families.

In this novel, Ms. Thien exposes us to great insights into the history of China. With beautiful writing, a compelling story and memorable characters, the author takes us into the dark inhumanity of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution — retelling a story that must not be forgotten.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a captivating novel, haunting, dark, and beautiful in its complexity. Well worth the read. I highly recommend this book. Let us know what you think if you read this book.