Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Written by Madeleine Thien
Review by Lorraine Norwood

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.” Thus begins one of the most brilliant books published in 2016—and one of the most challenging. Winner of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize, finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing brings Madeleine Thien to the world spotlight, revealing what Canadians have always known—she’s a major writer with incredible talent.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a sweeping exploration of history, music, family, and trauma in the face of brutal political repression in China. The story is told through 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. It is rich with details of Chinese life, and replete with references to music, ideograms, and literature.

At the heart of the book is the epic story of two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming, whose musician fathers, along with a violin prodigy named Zhuli, maneuver through a paranoid world of totalitarianism—their music conservatory targeted for “revolutionary” leanings, their pianos destroyed, and their favorite works of Bach and Beethoven forbidden.

Thien’s writing style, though exceptional, is demanding, as is the format of the book. It asks a lot of the reader. You have to work to read it. You have to pay attention. It dazzles with brilliancy and infuriates with its ponderousness. Don’t give up on it. Put it away for a rest if you must. But finish it. The world we live in today requires that we know this story.