Do Not Say We have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets.

Cover of the U.K. version: Publisher: Granta Books; 01 edition (7 July 2016), 480 pp.This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets, get into a deep funk, and nurse an aching heart for days afterwards. Reading it creates a feeling of “both joy and sorrow”, which Thien, in the novel, calls “kǔ lé” (or “bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”). The story is not entirely dark, but rather bitter-sweet, and amidst the tragedies there are happy moments and hopeful glimpses of a better future. The novel illuminates the darkest, and most censored, years of the 20th century in China, and after I read it, I felt relief that I had the dodged the bullet of being born Chinese in those times. (Continue reading…)

3 comments on “Do Not Say We have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

  1. smoran00

    I get a little confused – what is the social and cultural context that Thien is writing in ? I know it jumps around across different periods and such but I struggled to understand this. This is likely the result of my lack of knowledge about these historical events but if anyone could shed some light on it I would greatly appreciate.

  2. smoran00

    I get a little confused – what is the cultural context that she is writing in ? I know it jumps around across different periods and such but I struggled to understand this.

    • Hi smoran00. I have to be honest – I got a bit confused too at times. It was a challenge to read and review. Thien is a Canadian writing in English, not in translation, about Chinese subjects and themes. Thien’s protagonist is also a Canadian, who is tracing the history of her family, her father in particular, back through at least three generations in China and thirty years of history (1958 – 1989). You have to know at least the basics of the modern history of China to appreciate the plot.
      The context is, I suppose, that of a Canadian author (and her main character, Marie (Ma-li) Li-ling JIANG) getting a deeper understanding of their country of origin, China, from the other side of both a personal and geographical divide. (Canadian culture is, in many ways, completely different from Chinese culture.) In this novel, Thien actually identifies the things that bridge this divide – music, maths, family, the need to be free, etc. I guess it’s all about what you lose and gain when you choose to leave and go live in another country. I often wonder how much of an author’s own life is in their books, and I particularly wondered this when I read Thien’s book. I suspect it is quite biographical. Why don’t you write her and ask her yourself? She’s on Twitter and she tweets a lot about this issue.

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