In Canada in 1990, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-ming.
As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolutionto remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through ten years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-ming – and for Marie.
From the 2016 Man Booker shortlist, this book has sat on my shelf for far too long. An epic story spanning several decades in China during and post the reign of Chairman Mao. Marie tells the story retrospectively of meeting Ai – ming who stayed with her and her mother for a few months shortly after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Both girls had recently lost their fathers who had been student and teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 60s, seperated having taken different paths during the Cultural Revolution but maintaing contact as part of their deep relationship.
This book is an impressive piece of historical fiction, intricately written spanning the lives of Ai – ming’s parents and grandparents as well as her time in Canada with Marie. The story moves about in time and with a lot of characters was not always easy to follow. However it was an immense and mesmorizing read detailing the music of the Conservatory, Ai – ming’s fathers story in China, as a composer but then following the revolution his departure from music and life in a factory. His friend Jiang Kai (Marie’s father) a pianist, chose a different path, which kept him in music but what the story clearly showed was that neither man was happy and the losses of the Cultural Revolution were huge for so many.
This was a detailed account I think of this time period in China and while my knowledge of this is limited the story and the historical references were easy enough to follow. Similarly my knowledge of classical music is small and I am certain that I missed references within this book. It was a challenging read, certainly not light but so interesting, not a quick read and one that required concentration but one that left me feeling that I had gained, knowledge and insight into a time and place that doesn’t feature much in my reading.
I did read Wild Swans some years ago and I wonder if that book was enough to provide me with sufficient knowledge as a foundation for this book. I was recommended to brush up on my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution prior to reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I didn’t do but found I was fine with the knowledge I had.
A worthy piece of prize nominated fiction which I would recommend, but allow time to read it and ensure you have headspace to concentrate, I think then you can expect a very worthwhile read.
About the Author
Madeline Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes (2001) and the novels Certainty (2006) and Dogs at the Perimeter (Granta 2012), which was shortlisted for Berlin’s 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fairs 2015 LiBeraturpreis. Her books and stories have been translated into 23 languages. Her essays have appeared in Granta, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Five Dials, and Brick, and her story ‘The Wedding Cake‘ was shortlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. The daughter of Malaysian – Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal.