Do Not Say We Have Nothing By Madeleine Thien

A front cover emblazoned with awards and nominations, this novel caught my attention in Chapters and made it on my notes list. Next step: library hold (I read way too much to actually buy the books). Wow – was it ever popular! As number 183 on the wait list, it took over three months to get hold of and my god it was worth the wait.

Historical narrative has really become a favourite of mine and this is one of the best. To be fully immersed in a particular historical period and go on a journey with a front seat view is as good as it gets and this was one hell of a road trip.

Beautifully written and cleverly structured, this poetically written narrative uses flashbacks as our protagonist, Marie, meets a cast of characters from her family’s past in her attempt to uncover the reason for her father’s suicide. Thrown back in time, we meet Marie’s father, a talented pianist who is living through Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, fighting and failing to retain any sense of individuality as musicians and teachers are brutally purged. Is it possible to remain loyal to anything other than the party? Could any stories or art survive the relentless hate of the Red Army? Most importantly, what happens to the self when it must be hidden for so long? This book raises questions constantly and as a reader you are constantly being challenged; one’s mind is never at rest – I loved that!

Each set of characters are compelling and unforgettable, even their names: Swirl, Wen the Dreamer and Sparrow to name but a few. Just when the heartache seems insupportable the author transports us to the streets of Beijing in the days leading up to the Tiananmen massacre and we witness the next generation’s failed attempt to stand up to the party. The lasting consequences of both these traumatic periods pulls the narrative together and through these stories, Marie comes to understand her father  and ultimately herself.

The novel is a glorious and epic achievement in both its historical and human scope. It feels like a written testament to honour those who were lost, or worse, forgotten. As Marie and then the author herself reminds us at the end: ” Not everything will pass” – and nor should it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Why? The half mark loss is a reflection of the patience required at the start with multiple narrative and many characters; however, it is well worth the effort!

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