I cannot remember when it last took me so long to read a book. I started reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing in early January and finished it at the end of February. I toyed with giving up on it (as I blogged about here), but instead I took a couple of ‘breaks’ to read other books, which interrupted the flow for me a little, but also helped me to persevere. At over 460 pages it’s of a considerable length, but I’ve taken less time to read longer books. It’s a tremendous achievement, a work of scholarship, but I found it really hard-going. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year; I’ve read the other five and I have to say that although in some ways this is the ‘finest’ book, it was not, for me at least, the best read. It has also been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today.
I’m also finding it fiendishly difficult to review! It’s a book about China. It covers a period from the mid-1960s, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was instigated, to the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government’s military reaction to which resulted in several hundred deaths. These deaths, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the thousands, possibly millions who were tortured, killed and persecuted in the previous forty years under Communist rule. The great horror the author explores more closely in this book, however, is the obsessive annihilation of all ‘unauthorised’ culture.
The novel begins in Canada where 10-year old Marie lives with her mother. Marie’s father, we learn, committed suicide, leaving many papers and a mystery. Then Ai-Ming comes into their lives, a refugee from China whose links to Marie’s father are not clear initially. She is a troubled young woman, though at this stage we do not know why. Marie becomes close to Ai-Ming and with her she begins to uncover some of the mysteries lying within her father’s remaining effects, but Ai-Ming eventually disappears, leaving many unanswered questions. Marie sets out to uncover the full story of the connections between Ai-Ming’s family and her father and most of the book is a detailed first hand account of these events.
Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, was a gifted composer at the prestigious musical academy in Shanghai. Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, a little younger and a gifted pianist. The third key individual is Zhuli, Sparrow’s young cousin who lives with him and his parents because her own parents have been imprisoned in remote labour camps for crimes against the state. Zhuli is a prodigious violinist. For each of our three main protagonists, music not only dominates their life, but their whole being. The homogenisation of culture under Mao, the proscribing of musical performance and the condemnation of musicians as ‘bourgeois rightists’ has profound effects on their lives. The book is primarily about how each is affected, both the shared horror they feel, and the different paths they must each follow for self-preservation.
It is a profoundly moving book: the horrors of the time are recounted in breathtaking detail and the aims of the book are noble. The author paints a picture of how the Cultural Revolution, by denying the expression of a shared history through art, literature and music, and by prohibiting so much that was beautiful and valuable, was a programme of dehumanisation that exercised control by turning a mass of people into savages. There is no doubt that Madeline Thien is an extremely talented writer. However, I was only able to become really engaged with the book partway through; the first hundred pages or so just failed to move me at all. I found the transitions from 1990 Canada to 1960s China rather clunky; each time we were with Ai-Ming and Marie and just beginning to get to know them, we were suddenly drawn back to China and a set of random characters in whom I struggled to get interested. It was when Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai’s story came to the fore that I began to become more invested. Even then though there would be extremely long sections of the book telling us their story, without even a mention of Ai-Ming and Marie. Yes, the author ties everything up very cleverly at the end, but it rather rendered the Ai-Ming/Marie reflective device a bit redundant. I think it would have been just as good a story without involving these two at all.
So, a powerful and moving book, a necessary one perhaps, demonstrating the dangers of oppression, control and the regulation of art and culture, but a book that is hard-going at times.
Have you read this book? I’d be interested in your views
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