Published by: Knopf Canada
Where I got the book: Public Library
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This book was my selection for the CanLit Bingo 2016 challenge: I9 Epic Book.
This review was originally written for The Charlatan. An edited version appeared on November 17, 2016, Volume 46, Issue 15.
Months ago, when Do Not Say We Have Nothing was announced to be on the Man Booker shortlist, I added my name to the decently large list of holds on the book. By the time I got the book and finished reading it, it had won the Governor General and the Giller and the hold waiting list was approaching a thousand people.
At the start of the first page it was easy to see why Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien has garnered so much critical acclaim this year. Nominated for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for English fiction and winner of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a compelling and beautiful piece of historical fiction.
Marie is 10 years old in 1989 when her father leaves her family twice, once as he moves to Hong Kong and the second time when they receive news of his suicide. As time moves on and Marie and her mother struggle to adapt, their lives are overturned once more by the arrival of a letter from a family friend in China asking for a favour. Ai-ming, the young daughter of a friend of Marie’s father, is in trouble after the Tiananmen massacre and is coming to Canada illegally while waiting for the situation to calm down.
The novel is a complicated saga of the connections between two families, weaving between the present day in Canada and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is filled with stories within stories, as Ai-ming tells Marie stories of her parents and grandparents during the Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution and Marie tries to discover and understand the links between their fathers when they both studied music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a stunning and complex novel that grapples with numerous issues in beautiful prose. This isn’t the largest book I’ve ever read at 480 pages, but it’s not one to be rushed through and at times I had to put it down and cry. Thien brings together complex depictions of war, love, family, friendship, hope through the characters’ relationships with each other and their love of music as they struggle to survive the new political regime. This is a book about what it means to be human in the face of adversary.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it very deserving of all the praise and acclaim its been receiving. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a moving, introspective read.