‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ is not a title supported by my new bookends, sadly enough, but it was on loan from my book group. The author of this moving novel is Canadian Madeleine Thien, and I am pleased that I was given the opportunity to read her work.
I can see why this work was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, as the story is epic, the prose seamless, the characterisations utterly memorable. But it is the relationships between families, across continents and time, which are the most remarkable. It begins in Canada, when Ai-ming, fleeing the 1989 Beijing demonstrations, is taken in by Ma and her ten-year-old daughter Marie. Ai-ming warms to Marie, and begins to tell her the history of her family, and the events leading to the Tiananmen Square protests.
It is Marie however, who continues to fill in the missing pieces of their linked history, which spans three decades, long after Ai-ming has left their home.
This sweeping novel threads together a story of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, with the lives of three musicians at its heart; the painfully shy yet brilliant composer Sparrow (Ai-ming’s father), violinist Zhuli, and the engaging pianist Jiang Kai (Marie’s father), who meet in the sixties at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The close friends struggle to remain loyal to each other throughout the Cultural Revolution, and to the music which consumes their lives. Their anguish is palpable, as the relentless scourge of the revolution separates them and their families in dreadful ways, with lasting consequences for Ai-ming and Marie.
There is much more for you, the reader, to learn but I shall not spoil the denouement here. I know that you’ll come to love Sparrow’s family, Big Mother Knife, Ba Lute, Big Mountain and Flying Bear, and others, as much as I did, along with the music, joy and sorrow which overflow the pages.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Published by Granta Books, Great Britain, 2016. The novel also won The Canadian Governor General’s Award and the Scotia Bank Giller Prize.