Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien #Bookerprize

madeleinetheinI’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.

This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.

Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.

This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight.  – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.

The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.

I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.

There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”



Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Published: 2016 by Granta Books.

Length: 473 pages

My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a  more detailed review 




About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 8, 2016, in Book Reviews, Canadian authors, Man Booker Prize and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Like Naomi and Debbie, I have this one on my stack because of its Giller nomination (also, I’ve seen her in interview three times and they’ve all been incredibly positive experiences) and it’s also been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award here this year too. So maybe there will be more chatter about it here and there as its profile is raised by additional prizelistings!

  2. This book is being reviewed all over the place these days, and it’s all making me anxious to get to it. It’s still the only Giller shortlisted book I haven’t gotten my hands one. But I will get my hands on it soon! So glad you liked it!

  3. I haven’t heard of this one at all. It definitely sounds worth looking into!

  4. Great review. I enjoyed Wild Swans though I dread to think how long it is since I read it. The history of China is fascinating.

  5. Gosh, I’m so out of it. No clue at all about literary news. I only found out via Google that this is shortlisted for this year’s Booker.

    While I really, really like the sound of this one, I think I’ll wait to purchase it — probably will get it when the Booker winner is announced. I mean, I still haven’t read my neglected copy of Wid Swans even though it has been on my shelf since I was in high school.

  6. I’ve heard so much about this book, both good and bad, and yet I still can’t decide if I want to read it. Your review makes me want to, but a lot of what’s been said make me wonder if I could keep up. Either way it seems a behemoth achievement of a novel!

  7. It’s on my TBR, it only arrived last week so I haven’t got to it yet:)

  8. Sounds very ambitious, and surprising it hasn’t garnered more publicity. I’ve read Wild Swans so I will keep an eye out for this one.

  9. This has been shortlisted for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize too, so I’m also surprised at the lack of online chatter.

  10. I really want to read this one. Thanks for your review!

  11. It’s my pick to win it all. Great book. I did feel like the beginning was very slow but that was a result of the sheer number of characters, different timelines, and different locations. I think it is the clear winner though so I am predicting it will win the prize. great review!

  12. Compelling review makes me want to read it!

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