Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Do+Not+Say+We+Have+NothingDo 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.


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.


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.

4 Stars

12 comments on “Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

  1. Brian Joseph
    October 7, 2016

    This sounds very good.

    The Cultural Revolution was a terrible time in China. Basing a book around how a family was effected by it seems like it has great literary potential.

    I guess that Thien really likes Glenn Gould 🙂


    • ebookclassics
      October 9, 2016

      The Cultural Revolution really is a rich and deep subject for a story. I haven’t read anything else that I can remember that looked at the affect on family.

      Madeleine Thien said she listened to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations for 5-6 hours a days sometimes when she was writing the book. She said it helped her become rooted in the story.


  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings
    October 7, 2016

    The book has not yet been published in the U.S., and I want to read it so badly. I only glanced over your review, since it includes spoilers, but I gather by your last paragraph that you liked it. That’s good to know. 🙂


    • ebookclassics
      October 9, 2016

      Yes, it’s a very good book. I had to be patient in the beginning because it wasn’t easy keeping track of the characters, time periods and settings, but it all came together around the middle for me.


  3. Naomi
    October 11, 2016

    I have yet to read this one. Having read almost all of the other Giller shortlisted books now, I’m very curious to know how it will compare. And because it’s doing so well world-wide!
    I also noticed that The Hidden Keys had Glenn Gould in it – funny coincidence?


  4. buriedinprint
    October 13, 2016

    I’m super looking forward to reading this one; it might be the last of this year’s Giller books that I read so that I’m sure it’ll end on a grand note!


    • ebookclassics
      October 15, 2016

      I think this book is going to win at least a couple of awards. What other Giller books have you read and what do you recommend?


      • buriedinprint
        October 26, 2016

        I’m trying to read the longlist, but I only sampled the short story collections (they were due back at the library: I like short stories) and I still have The Wonder to finish and The Party Wall and Do Not Say to read (my last). I haven’t found any of them disappointing. The most challenging for me was Yiddish for Pirates (but I ended up loving the parrot) and the most compelling for me was Stranger (he writes very simply but I just fell into Iso’s story). Is it a prizelist you follow too?


        • ebookclassics
          November 10, 2016

          My responses are so late, my apologies. Yay for Madeleine Thien winning the Giller! I have a library hold on Yiddish for Pirates and I had The Party Wall, but didn’t have time to read the book. What do you think of it?


  5. Brona
    October 19, 2016

    I loved this book a lot, but I do love fiction set in China. I would go so far to say that this is my favourite book of 2016 so far!

    Just spotted your Alias Grace readalong. I’ve been wanting to reread this for ages, but now sure I’ll be able to binge read it in the next two weeks…although Dewey’s Readathon is coming up next weekend….hmmmmm…..


    • ebookclassics
      October 21, 2016

      I don’t think I’ve read many books set in China. This may sound weird, but since I’m Asian sometimes books with Asian characters or settings don’t appeal to me. Happy to hear you got so much out of this book too. Not sure it’s my favourite book of the year, but it’s definitely at the top of the list!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Shadow Giller: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Consumed by Ink

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