Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
New York. W.W. Norton. 2016. 473 pages.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is Madeleine Thien’s third novel. The story follows a family in China during the many anti-rightist campaigns, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square protests. This period of turmoil consumes the lives of the characters, and they experience separation, denouncement, and even violence.
Thien tells the story of this family through a young girl named Marie living in Canada during the 1990s. An older girl from China, Ai-ming, comes to stay with Marie and her mother. When Ai-ming tells Marie about her family, the story begins to unfold. The mysterious Book of Records supplements the tale. The Book of Records is a multichaptered and unfinished work of literature that serves as a family heirloom and a tool of communication. The family must be careful with the Book of Records, as it would surely be destroyed if found. They must also safeguard their Western record collection and musical instruments.
Despite crushing censorship, Thien’s characters are comforted and sustained by literature and music. Each character’s story is a testament to the power of art. A young man in the family called Sparrow grows up to be a talented musical composer with a bright future. After the school he teaches at is closed down, he is assigned to a factory and does not compose music for over twenty years. His cousin, Zhuli, was only six when her parents were branded as counterrevolutionaries and she was separated from them. Now, at the age of fourteen, she is a talented violinist with dreams of performing abroad, but the government will not grant her a visa due to her family background. Even her uncle, a decorated hero of the Chinese Civil War, is eventually targeted.
Written as beautifully as the poetry that it cites, this book is a powerful story of creativity and perseverance. It expresses the human need for artistic expression and connection and the need to remember. The Book of Records fulfills all these needs for the family, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing can fulfill these needs for the reader.
University of Colorado, Boulder