Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) spans several decades to tell the story of a Chinese family whose lives are torn apart by the Cultural Revolution in China. From Shanghai to British Columbia, Canada, characters try to hold onto their dreams, their freedom and their loved ones.
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
A few thoughts on Do Not Say We Have Nothing …
I apologize to the author for making fun of this book in an earlier post, but my initial impression of DNSWHN was that she was trying very hard to write a story that would be classified as “epic “ and “breathtaking”. However, DNSWHN truly is full of sad and tragic characters who are storytellers and musicians creating beautiful art during China’s Cultural Revolution (worst.time.ever). I eventually became swept up with these individuals in the madness of their changing society which culminates in the explosive showdown in Tiananmen Square. So yes, DNSWHN is literary fiction with a capital “L”, but a damn fine one.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK FOR ME
In-between everything that I described above was a subplot about a series of books that people were so crazy about and felt was so important, they would copy the books and distribute them in secret by whatever means to ensure the survival of the story. I felt this subplot didn’t make any sense in relation to the overall crammed storyline.
Classical music is central to the lives of several characters and sometimes their only means of expressing their individuality and deeply repressed feelings. Glenn Gould is mentioned frequently in the story and I’m not sure if this is because he’s Canadian and the author is Canadian. (As a side note, Glenn Gould also pops up in the Hidden Keys by André Alexei. Another Canadian author mentioning the musician). I know very little about classical music or Glenn Gould, so I actually tried to listen to some of the compositions mentioned in each book to get into the mood of the story.
DNSWHN has been nominated for the Man Booker, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and maybe others I’m not aware of. Is it good enough to win? Without having read the book’s competition, I would say the book has so many strong elements (arts, politics, relationships, general epic-ness), DNSWHN surely has a good chance. I certainly will be cheering for the book.