Do Not Say We Have Nothing is all over the internet right now, perhaps due to its spot as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, and more recently it has become the 2016 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Because of all the already-existing fabulous reviews that abound I’m going to try to keep mine short and sweet with a large list of further reading at the end for anyone who wants to know more.
Before embarking on my Shadow Giller reading, I already knew I would want to spend time with this book. Leaving it until the end ensured that I wouldn’t feel rushed while reading it, which ended up making my experience more rewarding. My advice to you: Don’t rush this book; savour it. It might take you a week to read it, but it’s worth it.
By now I’m sure most of you know what this book is about; one (extended) family’s experience during the cultural revolution in China. More deeply, it’s about what happens when people don’t have the freedom to live the way they want; to choose their work, where they live, and even who they live with.
The People should come first, above family and self, above petty concerns like attachment and music and love.
- The scope of this novel. I learned a lot about the history of China and how the Communist Party works to control the people. Things I thought I already knew, but really I didn’t. It also explores how events have a far-reaching ripple effect, and how the past doesn’t just go away.
- The narrator in the present. Marie/La-Ling’s voice in the present grounded me, allowing me a better perspective of the big picture.
I set myself to remembering everything she had told me, the beautiful, cruel and courageous acts, committed by her father and mine, which bound our lives together.
- The Book of Records, which gets passed down through generations and copied over many times, often to hide secret codes inside for family members to discover. I like that Marie continues this tradition, even at the end.
- The passion brought to the subject by the author, and the book’s call for freedom and individualism.
- There’s some humour scattered here and there throughout this book, which helps to lighten the mood.
Ma showed her around the apartment. I retreated to the sofa and pretended to watch the Weather Channel, which predicted rain for the rest of the week, the rest of 1990, the rest of the century, and even the remainder of all time. [Vancouver, Canada]
- Kai’s part in the “struggle sessions”. I couldn’t shake my anger towards him the whole rest of the book. I tried reminding myself that he had been under immense pressure, he felt a strong duty to his family, and that he was still so young – only 17 at the time. Still, it hurts.
- Sparrow’s emptiness. What a terrible waste; for himself, the world and his family.
In truth, he wanted to believe. He would not feel so utterly alone if only he could give in and place his trust in a person or just an idea.
- “Listening” to Sparrow’s “The Sun Shines on the People’s Square“. I was a wreck by then. And, yes, I felt like I was actually listening to the music. I wanted to google it.
- 500 pianos were destroyed at the Shanghai Conservatory. And, obviously, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Best character: Big Mother Knife. She’s as tough as her name, and at times adds some comic relief.
The world is like a banana, easily bruised. Now is the time to watch and observe, not to judge. Ai-ming, believing everything in books is worse than having no books at all.
Is there anything I didn’t like about this book? Let me start by saying that it took me a full week to read this book, and I didn’t even mind; most of the tiime I was completely absorbed. But… there were a couple of parts that I felt were lagging, particularly in the develpment of the relationships between Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai and their many trips to the conservatory and their many practice sessions. This review at The Walrus suggests that the book is too wordy, however I think that might be a matter of taste; some people seem to have loved every word while others felt the book was too long. So don’t let this stop you from reading the book – it’s an experience that you won’t want to miss.
Thank you to Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!
This is my last review of the shortlisted Giller books. (You can find the rest of my reviews here.) In the next while, the Shadow Jury will be making its choice, to be announced in advance of the real winner on November 7th. All of the books on the shortlist this year are amazing books – I’m glad I had the chance to read them, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them.
Further Reading: (If I’ve missed your review, leave a link in the comments!)
Globe & Mail: The inspiration behind Canadian author Madeleine Thien’s latest works
The Guardian: History is deftly woven into a moving story of the musicians who suffered during and after the Cultural Revolution in China
The New York Times: a Portrait of souls snuffed out
The National Post: With unflinching clarity, Madeleine Thien examines the psychology of violence during the Cultural Revolution