Arise, slaves, arise!
Do not say we have nothing,
We shall be the masters of the world!
When I asked a friend what Do Not Say We Have Nothing was about through the din of the party, I understood her to say “Tiananmen Square.” What I expected when I first cracked the spine of Madeleine Thien’s epic, lifetimes-spanning novel was a quaint exposé of events leading up to a climax of that now world-famous photograph. What I got instead was a sincere family history that was genuinely touching without being sentimental.
The book begins with young Li-ling or Marie (depending which language you speak) in Vancouver whose father has just disappeared back to Hong Kong where, she and her mother learn, he has committed suicide. Soon after a distant relative, Ai-ming, comes to live with them, forming a close bond with Marie before she, too, disappears to China.
As they grow close, Ai-ming tells Marie the complicated story of their fathers’ friendship. Their fathers, she tells Marie, were both talented musical minds who struggled through the Cultural Revolution of early 20th century China to keep each other and music safe in their hearts.
Threading through both timelines is the enigmatic Book of Records, a series of numbered notebooks that tell their own story, but whose impact lasts much longer than the anonymous author could ever have imagined. Like a musician interpreting music, each new copy of the Book of Records offers something new to whoever picks it up. And if the right person finds it, a whole new world of meaning is opened up.
Armed with her family’s history and the Book of Records, Marie sets off in search of what happened to her father and Ai-ming.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing itself reads like a book of records, drawing detailed portraits of names that would otherwise sit flat on a family tree. That isn’t to say that the book is dry. Quite the opposite, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is gorgeous in its imagery, at times calling to mind ancient Chinese poetry or, perhaps, Western classical music. The characters are seen through the lens of a granddaughter: for their flaws, they are all lovable. They feel as real to me as my own grandparents and cousins so when they are faced with hard decisions, threatened, separated, or traumatized, I grieve with them with the same forced silence and distance they feel for each other. The story is so much deeper than the quick summation my friend gave me. This book is not about Tiananmen Square. This book is about family, love, loss, grief, and trauma suffered through lifetimes and passed on through generations.
At nearly 500 pages, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is no small undertaking, but its length and pace are expertly crafted to lull you into a sense of security and then shock you with the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Each page is placed with purpose. Each subplot as beautiful as the the next. I struggle to find a way in which this book could be improved and I’ll be eagerly looking out for Thien’s next work.