Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a critically acclaimed new novel from Madeleine Thien. Winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award as well as shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for an Andrew Carnegie Medal, it is effectively the book of 2016. I can’t believe I actually read it before the year ended. As previously mentioned, I am horrifically bad at reading award-winning books in their cultural moment. That being said, if you’re looking for a hot new book to start your 2017 this is a great one!
Thien’s latest novel is a kaleidoscope of music and art drawn across decades of a Chinese family’s history. It begins in 1990’s Vancouver, where a single mother and her 10-year-old daughter, Marie, take in a young woman named Ai-Ming, a refugee from China. From there, an epic story of love and loss unfurls, as their predecessors made up of generations of artists live through the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square protests and right up to modern day 2016. At the root of this family tree are two singers and sisters, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, who serve as a touch point through history. Most interesting is the intimate way Thien unpacks the psychology of societal violence through the family’s perspective. The logic which leads to violent outbursts, secret police, turning on neighbours, and burning books is revealed in a way which you can only empathize. The character’s desire for music despite all of this breaks your heart.
“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,” writes Thien. (28) Sound is constantly present in the story, not just in the references to dozens of composers, but in the phonetics of the written language. Thien uses words which are soft as the name Tofu Liu or flippant as Zhuli, inviting as the Red Mountain People’s Refreshment House or grand as the Book of Records. All of these work together in grand symphony, to create a feeling about each character like an opera. Throughout the book are sentences so lyrically intricate, they prove Thien to be a composer as much as a poet. For example,
I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told Big Mother this, she laughed her head off. “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?”
Storytelling also becomes a tool for the family to find community and protect each other. The Book of Records, a fictional multi-chapter novel is copied out again and again first by Wen the Dreamer, Swirl’s love interest, as a token of love, then by Swirl and Big Mother Knife, as a secret language for finding each other, and later used by Marie to excavate her father’s past. “A copy of a copy,” that is how it is handed down, yet it grows and offshoots into a multiplicity of stories; a family inheritance within an individual character. It is rhizomatic, becoming the book itself, a record of Big Mother Knife and Swirl’s family and their adventures. Looking at the notes section of the novel, where Thien points to other works of literature, classical and revolutionary music, politics, and philosophy, I was astonished by the Deleuze-Guattarian breadth of it all. She has even created a Tumblr site for the novel, an intertextual treat for readers and establishing a strong visual connection to the world at large.
I confess that at times I did not understand the purpose of certain lines of poetry which were often adopted by Thien and not written by herself. A prime example is the phrase, “I came into this life with a shadow, a paper, and a rope,” which while being from a character who is suicidal is also supposedly thought by a 14-year-old. Not a professed lover of poetry, I find the image interesting but confusing and not in character.
The role of women in the novel is intriguing. At the start, the novel is focused on Marie, her mother, and Ai-Ming, and how their lives are intersected by men who are absent to them. The men of their family are no longer living or present and their absence appears to consume their whole present and seemingly their future. I didn’t enjoy the first few chapters for exactly this reason, but then the book opened up. We go back to the beginning where the two matriarchs, Big Mother Knife and Swirl survive in a turbulent and dangerous time, especially for artists. The power of their love for each other and their children despite the threats from the Japanese army, the Red Guards, and the May the Fourth protests is the bedrock for the entire book. The story itself is based on the strength of these two women it is passed down through the generations to some who carry on as refugees and immigrants in Canada and the US. Their losses become your losses and suddenly the women’s grief becomes understandable.
Truly, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a triple-award winning work. I loved this book and the family it represents, finding myself terribly moved time and time again. As my first introduction to Thien, I’m excited to familiarize myself with her other work.