Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a tale of revolutionary China. Spanning from Chairman Mao’s ascent to power, right through to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. At the centre of the novel, holding the multiple threads together is ten-year-old Marie living with her mother in Canada. Ai-ming is a student running from the fallout of Tiananmen Square who comes into their lives bringing back memories of Marie’s father. Slowly the novel explores China’s bloody revolutions with themes of family, music and love.
Thien provides great insight into the history of China, something I had basically no knowledge of prior to reading this novel. It astounds me that this history is not discussed more widely. Everyone knows about WWII and the Holocaust, but China’s revolutions have killed more people in just as brutal ways. Detention camps, denunciations, friends turning on friends. It is all there in abundance coming slowly to the brutal climax that is the Tiananmen Square massacre. Even more disturbing is how in China “officially” this did not occur. There is no reference to this event in the media, the internet, according to the Chinese government it never happened. This novel made me realise just how lucky we are here in Australia. Don’t get me wrong, there is much we can do to improve our country, however, we can protest our government all we want and we will not see repercussions for speaking our mind, we can choose our own paths of study and work and our government does not filter the internet. I realised I could have it much worse and that I should be grateful in my freedoms. In fact, this book despite being most set in China is not available over there because of the references it makes. Scary thought, huh?
An absolute strength of this novel lies in the characters. Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai are a once inseparable trio, all magnificently talented musically. Idealistic Kai, naive and beautiful Zhuli and Sparrow who lived in his own little bubble. I fell in love with this trio, in particular with Zhuli’s spirit and it breaks your heart knowing that their moments of peace in each other’s company and music cannot last. Beyond this Big Mother, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer are all highlights within the pages. Ai-ming is a mystery that you want more and more of but are left wondering with Marie, pondering what her fate might be.
The use of music and written records add a romantic element into the brutal plot. These little moments of happiness are beautiful and the reader sympathises with how the simple things are what keeps people going in times of hardship and is what can tie people together across generations and continents. Thien weaves a captivating story that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, impatient to know what happens next, although you are a little scared to find out the truth. This is a memorable novel that tells an important piece of history that we should all be aware of. More than deserving of the Man Booker nomination I do recommend giving this one a read. I give Do Not Say We Have Nothing three of Zhuli’s violins.