Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.
Before reading this novel, my knowledge of Mao’s Cultural Revolution amounted to zero. I was so looking forward to beginning an exploration into this period in history, and somewhat bolstering my intelligence in learning of the political upheaval for the Chinese people. How someone can take such a multi-layered segment of history and turn it into a dull four-hundred pages of blether, astounds me, yet by god Thien has managed it.
There should be real impact here, morals, heart. Thien’s writing style limits all of this, and feels hugely like a lecture in music for the majority of the time. As someone with no grasp, nor desire to grasp, the nuances of music, I found it difficult to struggle through the endless descriptions of the most minute details in the anatomy of sound. Peppered with the most florid styles, the narrative felt as though it should be attacked with a pair of pruning shears. I was tickled by a metaphor and stroked by some sort of imagery every few sentences. It was too much.
Salvation could truly have come from the characters. Thien showed us different generations of the same family, each of them beginning beautifully, and with the most gorgeous names - Swirl, Sparrow, Old Cat, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife - all of them seeming so exciting in the early pages, only to bring nothing, to become as bland as the paragraphs on Bach.
I know in my heart that the revolution created such heartbreak, loss, and sadness in China, yet I felt none of these things. The complete lack of connection I felt to the characters was instrumental in building nothing but apathy inside me, and a guilt for not feeling the pain I should have. Even this review has been written with a passivity that brings guilt to me.
With a grey and woolly storyline, prose that stuck my eyes together, and a completely unsatisfactory dip into Chinese history that just droned on and on, this work by Thien is an utter disappointment.