by Madeleine Thien
My first encounter with Do Not Say We Have Nothing was when I saw it on the Giller long list. Out of all the presumably great stories that made the list, the synopsis held my interest the most. Thien’s book follows a group of people as they struggle through the Chinese Cultural Revolution and, later, the Tiananmen Square protests. I got my copy and, when I actually got to give it the ol’ read-through, it seemed quite timely, not just because I was able to at least start it before the Giller winner was announced, but that I also was able to finish it just before Remembrance Day.
It’s quite sobering to pick up a book like Do Not Say We Have Nothing from time to time, as it’s easy to forget the terrible things that people can feel justified in inflicting on the innocent in order to desperately cling to power. Thien’s story has a slow build, but the good kind of slow build, where we get to experience the “normal” of our characters and really get to know them before she throws them under the bus. This works well to give Do Not Say We Have Nothing a great deal of its poignancy, especially since the author successfully captures the sense that the horrors are unrelenting––that everyone feels powerless to influence their world and that there’s no escaping––for great lengths of the story.
Much of Thien’s story centres on music, with most of the characters being musicians, composers, or musical scholars. (Of course, with the major focus of the Cultural Revolution being the purge of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, it shouldn’t constitute a spoiler warning to suggest that focusing on civilians heavily involved with such a thing can effectively underscore the sadness of something you love being forcibly taken from you.) It’s always interesting to me to see how an author handles the description of music in her work. In Thien’s case, she focuses on an almost craft-like approach that would be readily understood by her experts, how the various sounds play off each other and interact, and how different characters respond to the music. Though it was good, I think I prefer how Sean Michaels approaches it in Us Conductors, where the attention is more on the immediate sounds and emotions that seem borne of the music when it floats through the air, but it’s very hard to compare the two. (More on this book next week…)
But, don’t take the suggestion that I like one aspect of one great book better than another as reason not to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, because it really is a great book. Be forewarned, however, that it’s deeply sad, heavy, and draining to read through; I recommend coming at it with that in mind, or, at least, chasing it with a lighter read.