Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic tale written in lyrical prose. It begins in the present, with Marie (also known as Li-Ling) baffled by her father’s unexplained abandonment and suicide, and intrigued by the visit of the teenage girl Ai-Ming, daughter of her father’s friend, on the run from China and seeking safety abroad. The narrative soon delves back into the past, revealing the story of Big Mother Knife, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer, all mixed up with an ancient tale that never seems to end.   

This is the kind of novel that really puts you into the mindset of the characters – children being brought up in communist China, taught to behave in a way which pulls at their conscience, watching loved ones humiliated and persecuted by their own compatriots, yet unable to see how they can live in a way that does not conform.

Yet this is far more than a book about communist China. It is a book about books, about the act of recording historical and personal events, about memory, about the intermingling of fact and fiction, imagination and reality, and the power of literature to grant freedom. Filled with quotations and references to literature of all kinds, the story centres around The Book of Records, a kind of symbolic never-ending tale of love, hardship and adventure, in which words have multiple (often secret) meanings. It is through The Book of Records that Wen the Dreamer wins the heart of his wife (Swirl), it is because of books that the couple become separated, sent to work camps where they teeter on the brink of survival, and it is through The Book of Records that the remaining family members are reunited, years later.

It is also a book about music, and the power of love. One of the central characters (Sparrow, the father of Ai-Ming) is a talented composer, yet he forces himself to give up his music, determined to do what he can to survive and to protect those he loves. Kai and Sparrow have a bond that it is excruciatingly painful, a bond that cannot be forgotten.

The prose is elegant and musical, tangible and poetic:

“Inside Sparrow, sounds accumulated. Bells, birds and the uneven cracking of the trees, loud and quiet insects, songs that spilled from people even if they never intended to make a noise.”

It is also philosophical in style, as the narrator takes time to reflect on truths and lessons learnt, such as the significance of names, the beauty and hidden meanings contained within Chinese characters (illustrated in the book) and the power of music.

The narrative jumps around, beginning in the present, so that the reader knows how everything will end. Yet it is cleverly done, in a way that reveals only partial aspects of the tale, told by the narrator who admits that she herself does not know all that happened. In fact, it is primarily an uncovering of the past, a kind of elegy to those long gone.

It is impossible to do justice to the magnitude and scale of such a book, but I would highly recommend it. It will fill you up as you read, and you will never be the same again. Here’s a final quote to finish:

“One night, Zhuli played the opening of Handel’s Xerxes for her mother. It was the simplest of songs, romantic… and yet in the middle of the aria, Zhuli felt as if her arms and her body were disappearing. She felt the only reality was this wire of tension between herself and Ma: it was the one true, unfinished movement of her life. In this room, there was only the act of listening, there was only Swirl, a counting down and a counting up, the beginning that could never be a real beginning.”

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