Review published on October 19, 2016.
This sweeping epic of life in China in the turbulent decades of the 1960s–80s seems sure to win next week’s Man Booker Prize.
If, like me, you know next to nothing about China’s Cultural Revolution and the transition from Chairman Mao to successive leaders, you will learn so much from this, Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien’s fourth book. Narrated from the present day by Marie (or Ma-Li), the novel plunges into layers of flashbacks. One of these tells of how Ai-Ming comes into Marie’s life in 1990. In the wake of her father’s suicide, Marie and her mother are enduring a hard winter in Vancouver when a letter comes from a friend back in China, seeking shelter for her daughter Ai-Ming, in danger after her role in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
Ai-Ming tells Marie all about her family history. Along with her grandparents Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute and her father, Sparrow, a composer at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s, we meet her great-aunt Swirl and great-uncle Wen, who were persecuted and sent to a work camp during the land reform campaign. Like Sparrow, Swirl and Wen’s daughter Zhuli was a keen musician and joined him at the conservatory as a violinist. There the cousins formed a tight-knit triangle of friendship (and love) with Jiang Kai – Marie’s father. Especially in the early chapters, I found these character relationships confusing and wished there was a family tree or cast list at the start of the book.
With loyalty to the Communist Party (the title is a line from its anthem) considered the gold standard of behaviour and Western music widely denounced as revolutionary, these characters are in a bind: will they pursue their identity as individual artists, or keep their heads down to stay out of trouble? This theme reminded me most of Julian Barnes’s fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also asks whether music can withstand political oppression. “Music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere,” Thien writes.
There is no denying the power of this portrayal of history. In addition, I was consistently impressed by the book’s language. Thien incorporates Chinese characters and wordplay, musical bars, and snatches of poetry and folk songs. Her metaphors feel appropriate to their setting (“He wore his rural background well, like a penny novel wrapped inside an elegant cover” and “Rain fell in continuous sheets, beating the tin roof like a regiment of horses”) and brought to mind Chinese literature I have read in translation, especially Geling Yan’s Little Aunt Crane. There’s also a delicious book-within-the-book: the Book of Records tells of the perilous adventures of Da-wei and May Fourth. When Wen is on the run, he and Swirl hide messages to each other in altered copies of the Book of Records.
I didn’t always find this easy reading. The flashbacks can feel endless, such that I experienced Marie’s sections as a relief and wished for more of them. I had to set myself daily reading targets to get through the novel before the public library due date. Yet it is the sort of epic the Booker Prize loves – with echoes of Ruth Ozeki’s The Tale for the Time Being (which should have won in 2013) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – and is full of wise observations about what keeps us going when life falls apart. It’s not my absolute favourite from the Booker shortlist (that’s Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, followed by Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk), but now that I’ve read all six I feel confident that Thien’s novel will be taking the prize next week.
Rebecca Foster 4/4
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
SECOND OPINION: Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker
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