Book Review – Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
Book: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Author: Madeleine Thien
Year of Release: 2016
Read 473-page hardcover edition in June 2017.
In this sprawling fictional epic, we follow the lives of two generations of an intertwined family. The first generation is living through China’s Cultural Revolution, led by Chairman Mao, while the second generation then experiences the uprisings around Tiananmen Square.
In addition, we see the family’s connection to Canada, with the young girl Marie growing up and trying to understand her family history, including her father, who left them suddenly and went back to China.
Canadian author Madeleine Thien, whose family has Chinese roots, has written a beautiful and grand novel exploring family, culture, politics, and music. Thien’s skill is in crafting a thoughtful and moving story that develops characters the reader cares about, who are placed in some difficult times in Chinese history.
The novel, winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award, is broken into two major parts, the first covering the period of time during the Cultural Revolution, and the second covering the time leading up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Looking at the novel, although all of the characters are written in a unique and interesting way, the plot definitely picks up speed and pace in the second half. This building of suspense leads to a more exciting time for the reader in this second half, and looking back, the first half of the novel did feel a little slow and drawn out.
The novel does have some fantastic quotes and ideas worth thinking about long after the closing page. For example, Wen the Dreamer says:
“…it’s foolhardy to think that a story ends. There as many possible endings as beginnings.”
All the characters that were conceived and written about by Thien were well-described and believable. These were people the reader comes to care about, and we wanted to know what happened to them. Thien, who is not a writer for the faint of heart, does a good job creating intense, suspenseful, and sad plot lines, which also means some of our most beloved characters succumb to sad endings. These are difficult scenes to read, but create some of the powerful sections of the novel as well.
One of our anchors in the book is the young Marie, who grows up in Canada not understanding her prior generations in China, and who comes to understand why her mom and dad are the way they are, through her own research and experiences. That being said, Marie is not the “main character” as such, and one of the great truths about this book is that there is not one or two main characters, but rather many.
At times, understanding and remembering all of the intricate connections across this family can be difficult, and a family tree would have been helpful at the beginning of this book to remember how the dozen or so people all relate to each other. Thankfully some great online resources have good diagrams to help with this.
Overall, this novel had multi-dimensional, complex characters, who were all shades of grey. Nobody was all good, or all bad. The plot was inventive, dramatic, and emotional. Thien has a great ability to write a sweeping novel that also teaches a lot about what it may have been like to live through these intense periods in 20th century China. Albeit a few minor challenges, this is still definitely a book worth reading.
Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars