“We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined that there were truths waiting for us- about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in- within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.”
This is a novel about China, about families, stories and music. Canadian writer Thien starts her sweeping saga in Toronto, with Li-Ling, in first-person narration, a young woman of Chinese parentage. Following the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 a student refugee Ai-Ming finds her way to Li-Ling’s mother’s house. The two girls’ fathers are connected in a story which encompasses China during the days of Chairman Mao and afterwards. I knew little of Chinese history but Thien puts this right. The very best writing is saved for the horrific times- the “Cultural Revolution” and Tiananmen Square where the involvement of the characters we have come to care about makes painful reading.
Ling’s father Jiang Kai befriended Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, when they were together at the Shanghai Conservatory Of Music. Sparrow’s cousin, Zhuli, a gifted violinist makes up this trio of very strong characters. Li-Ling comes to know about these people and others through family stories and a sequence of hand-copied chapters of a novel, which, during the difficult times, becomes the ultimate thing to be protected.
“The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off. “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?”
There were times when I thought this book was outstanding but also times when my interest wavered, probably most often with the more recent generation. I think it might just be slightly too long and if pared down somewhat has the potential to be a modern classic. Nevertheless, this is some achievement of a third novel and Thien’s passion for the subject and characters shine through.
This is my final book from the Man Booker shortlist and I think it is a good job that they do not have to choose a runner up. As far as I am concerned there is one that edges itself onto the winner’s podium (“His Bloody Project”) but selecting a second place would give me far more trouble. On reflection, however, I think given the epic sweep, scope and important subject matter of this one that my highly commended runner up award would go to Madeleine Thien.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing was published in July 2016 by Granta.