Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Last Christmas (our first Christmas together), my boyfriend and I agreed that lavish presents were stupid. So we decided to just get each other a book, like the Icelandic tradition. We picked a few best-of-award-winners-etc of 2016 lists, and mystery picked a book for each other. He read his in like three days over the Christmas (The Throwback Special) - he liked it, I did good.

He picked a good one for me too, but it sat on the shelf for 3 months. Oops. I finally coerced book club into reading if for June so I could have the opportunity to actually get past page 106. And I'm so glad I finally finished it!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
By Madeleine Thien
2016
480 pages

How do I describe this book? This book travels back and forth in time, loosely narrated by Ma-li, covering her youth and adulthood. Ma-li lives in Vancouver Canada, and she starts narrating in 1991. The other characters include her father, and his early life in China during the Cultural Revolution, and a family that includes Big Mother Knife, Swirl, Sparrow, Zhuli and Ai-Ming. Their story goes from World War II until the final climax during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Like I said, it jumps back and forth through time and character perspective, held together by the flow of music, as many of the characters are classical musicians. This book is, first and foremost, an education in communist China.

And oh boy was it good! Finally I got around to reading a well written book! As it should be, Thien won all the prizes and awards in 2016! The prose is so...lyrical - mostly because it's centred around music, but also because of the Chinese influence of vocabulary and characters. I really enjoyed the journey. Some people may find it disjointed and hard to keep the characters straight, but I didn't. Even though it flip flopped, it flowed, like it was held together as a symphony.

I'm a big fan of Jan Wong' China series, so I know a bit about communist China, and nothing that happened was shocking to me, but still, very sad and just crazy that the government did what they did to the people, to the culture, to multiple generations. It really reminded me of the intergenerational trauma that is talked about in Indigenous writing. Though a bit of a heavy summer read, this was an excellent books and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about China's recent history, anyone who likes classical music, and anyone who needs a break from bad writing, and Thien is certainly a wordsmith!

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