Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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“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.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing was published in   July  2016 by Granta.

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Afterlands – Steven Heighton ( Hamish Hamilton 2006)

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Written by Canadian author and poet this focuses upon a true life incident from 1872 when The Polaris, a steamer ship, which whilst on a polar expedition found itself enountering  difficulties in the Arctic Seas and ended up leaving a group stranded upon an ice floe.  This group comprised of an American lieutenant, various crew members of different nationalities (mainly German) and two Inuit families.

It is a battle for survival.  The group have meagre rations and need to hunt seals and all the while their home is diminishing in size as they drift along on the open sea, hoping for rescue or land.

This is a novel  in three parts.  We begin with the aftermath when one of the Inuit children, Punnie, has become a child virtuoso pianist.  The family is adapting to life in America but the shadow of their Arctic expedition looms over them and cannot let them go.  This leads into the second and most successful section of the novel which is the time on the ice.  Punnie’s mother, Tukulito, becomes a source of obsession for Lieutenant Tyson who sleeps snuggled up to her and her husband at night to keep warm.  Meanwhile Kruger, a German crewman, is believed by the others to be helping himself from their stores.  This section is brutal, relating the struggles of their everyday existence from various viewpoints.  This is an abandoned group of people who throughout it all are fighting to maintain their national identity and wary of others from different countries.  This theme of nationalism feels chillingly relevant 144 years later.

We are informed that Tyson has produced a record of these events and has spent the years afterwards promoting it and giving talks about his publication.  The details of this book have made it difficult for Kruger to function in society, so he withdraws and relocates to Mexico.  This is the basis for the third section of the novel where Kruger gets involved in local hostilities.  For me the third section feels very different to the tone of the rest of the book and apart from his yearning for Tukulito does not  feel as good a fit.

There is no doubt that Heighton has a strong poetic sensibility.  The structure and lyrical feel of the novel does not always give the reader an easy ride. I rather think that this might be a book that might benefit from a re-read, or a slow savoured read, but apart from the second section (where the hostility and brutality of the environment was almost too much for me) I wasn’t quite as involved as I might have hoped.

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Afterlands was published in 2006 by Hamish Hamilton