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

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The official oneyearonehundredbooks won’t begin until January 1st, but I just finished reading an amazing novel and it would be a crime not to share it all with you. So I’ve decided to jump the gun a little bit and begin my year of book reviews by telling you about Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

This is the inter-generational story of the Communist Revolution of China. Much of the story focuses on Sparrow, a young composer living in Shanghai. We watch him struggle through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. We also follow Sparrow’s extended family as they struggle through the student protests of 1989 and the horrific culmination at the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“This is a skill we perfect from an early age,” The Professor said lightly, “How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust”

What happens to a society when all of the art, music, and beauty have been scraped away? What lasting repercussions ripple through the generations when children are made to denounce their fathers or face being denounced themselves? How do you hold on to your hopes, your dreams, your individuality when things like hopes and dreams and individuality have been labeled as seditious?

These questions and more are at the center of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Thien does not shy away from shining a glaring light into the dark places of the Communist Revolution. We veer wildly from the naive optimism of the early days of Mao Zhedong, into the mob mentalilty and paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. The fierce hope of the student protests at Tiananmen are filled with a kind of desperate longing, made all the more painful because we already know how the situation is to end.

Classical composers such as Bach, Prokofiev, and Shostakavich are used to highlight the healing and inspiring power of music. As the Cultural Revolution rages on and such music is labeled “counter-revolutionary” it is replaced by nationalistic operas and government mandated slogans. How the characters deal with this loss of music in their lives is one of the highlights of the novel.

“Beauty leaves its imprint on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed”

About five years ago, the kindergarten I worked for in China hosted a picnic for Children’s Day. About a hundred children attended together with their parents and grandparents. There was music, dancing, face painting, and huge table filled with food. At one point, I was supervising the lunch table and I noticed an elderly Chinese woman, obviously someone’s grandmother. As she navigated the buffet table, she took about fifteen sausages and put them in a plastic bag, and put the bag in her purse. She proceeded to do the same with the fried potatoes, the stuffed buns, and the shrimp. Many of the children and parents had not yet had a chance to eat. To my well-fed American eyes, this struck me as incredibly rude. It was only later that evening that I stopped to truly consider all that that woman had experienced during her long life in China. The beginnings of Communism and the rice famine. The Cultural Revolution and the One-Child Policy. The growing environmental problems coinciding with China’s rise as an economic power. The lasting repercussions of that constant hunger, upheaval, and uncertainty. Reading this book, I felt a new-found respect for everything that Chinese grandmother had endured and overcome.

Good historical fiction has the ability to transport the reader back into another time and place, to enthrall us with detail of a period we can only try to understand. Truly great historical fiction demands more of the reader. It requires that we put ourselves in pain; that we experience the past with all the urgency of the present. It insists that we draw parallels and comparisons with the society we live in today. And it encourages us to learn more, to dive between the pages and conduct our own outside research. For this reader, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is truly great historical fiction.

My rating: 4.5/5

Find it here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

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