Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock
Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the title on everyone's mind this fall - winning a Governor General's Literary Award and landing on the shortlist for both the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize. Prizewinning novels are not always readable or enjoyable, but Do Not Say We Have Nothing is nothing short of wonderful – a complex and delicate intergenerational narrative unfolding like a sonata across the page.
It opens in Vancouver, with a girl’s grief for her father. "In a single year, my father left us twice," she recounts. "The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life." She can't understand why he would leave his family, nor why he would commit suicide, and these twin mysteries become constant companions to the reader throughout the novel. Their truth only clarifies at its conclusions.
As Jiang Li-ling follows her father's ghost into the desperate tale of her own family history, a narrative with questions that seem to have no answers. Why did her father give up a career as a concert pianist? Who did he leave behind when he immigrated to Canada from Shanghai? And what was he forced to sacrifice as part of these painful transformations?
Her father's death is paralleled by another mystery: a chapter of a novel Jiang Li-ling finds amongst her father's papers after his death, painstakingly hand-copied out in perfect, traditional calligraphy with no mention of title or author. This is The Book of Records - the history of which is inextricably tied to the narrative of her ancestors. Its winding, fantastical tale twists through deserts and radio waves; its themes of loss, remembrance, and deep, unequivocal love are the mirror images of the deep wounds her family has been forced to endure, mourn, and move past during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989.
From its humble beginning in one daughter's grief, the novel opens more and more widely until its final scope documents the incredible sorrow and pain suffered by an entire nation. Thien's portrait of twentieth century China is both delicate and forceful, heartbreaking and hopeful, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing ultimately clarifies into the story of a family torn apart by messy revolution. What are the repercussions of a government which selects the pieces of history that suit its needs, and discards the rest? What sort of violence are ordinary citizens capable of, once encouraged to condemn one another to save themselves? It is in this climate - political, social, and emotional - that the simple unwavering love and loyalty between two people becomes a revolutionary act, and music or literature with no political agenda or purpose is as dangerous as it is hopeful.
At this year's Ottawa Writers Festival, Madeleine Thien briefly spoke about the words censored by China's government in online correspondence every year around the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. "Obviously, they censor words like Tiananmen Square, June fourth, and tank man," she said. "But one year, inexplicably, they also censored today, tomorrow, and yesterday. They censored remember."
Do Not Say We Have Nothing novel is a way of returning power to those words - not in a call to arms, but in a monument to the grief of a country, the grief of a family, and the grief of a daughter. By the novel's close, it becomes the grief of the reader, too.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Knopf Canada.