Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

32057664._sy475_Fiction – Kindle edition. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. 474 pgs. Purchased.

 Marie’s father committed suicide in Hong Kong in the days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre — duel sins referred to only in hushed tones. Ten-year-old Marie is unsure how she is supposed to grieve for the father than abandoned her and her mother back in Vancouver months before the protests were brutally ended. And her distance from mainland China leaves her unsure as to why her father felt it was important to go back.

In the year that follows, her mother agrees to take in a young woman named Ai-Ming, who is fleeing from mainland China for her participation in the protests without papers or the necessary visas. Trapped in the apartment that Marie and her mother share, Ai-Ming digs out the papers left behind by Marie’s father and introduces the younger girl to the family history contained within.

Alternating between the past and the present, Thien’s novel shows how two successive generations survived three revolutions – the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, and the ’89 Democracy Movement. The progression of the story also explains why Marie’s mother agreed to assist Ai-Ming as it documents a friendship forged over loss and shared persecution.

One of the pitfalls in structuring a story that alternates between the past and the present is that the writer risks the reader developing a preference for one story over the other. I vastly preferred the story of the past and quickly began to resent the intrusion of Marie and her present into the story.

I cared not for how Ai-Ming and Marie may (not) be related. Instead, I wanted to spend more time with Sparrow, his mother, his aunt, and his daughter without being reminded that we don’t know if this story is Ai-Ming’s family history or Marie’s or both.

Central to Thien’s tale is a love of music, particularly works of Bach and Beethoven as played on the violin. The novel mimics a concerto and its three movements – music is rejected quickly, then a slow reprieve as culture is elevated under Madam Mao, and then rejected just as quickly as before when Mao dies. It’s a very clever presentation that stresses both the love of music and the unpredictability of revolution, and it made all the tidbits on the history of music more palatable to me as someone who is not a particularly great lover of music.

What kept me interested amid all the focus on music was how a single family could be so violently and thoroughly shaped by these three revolutions in China. It is so easy to read about these three moments in a vacuum, forgetting that there are people alive today who lived through all three major moments in modern Chinese history. But the non-linear narrative and its interjection of the present made it a challenge to maintain the who, what, where, and when of the story and, ultimately, I found this book to be a slog to get through.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016, which is how it first came to my attention. It was also longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 and for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

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