Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien’s 3rd novel shines a light on the lives of those who lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It sounds utterly pretentious when I describe it like that, doesn’t it? Like a subject from history dusted off for me to show how clever I am to read it. Which might all be true, but it’s still beautiful.

Two friends in Vancouver, Marie and Ai-Ming (who has fled China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre) piece together each’s family history in China – from the rise of Chairman Mao, life at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, through the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Marie and Ai-Ming’s respective parents were talented musicians living through the Cultural Revolution (a shy composer, a brilliant violinist, and a gifted pianist). Thien uses their stories to weave together  themes of memory, loyalty, fate, freedom, and love – combining and repeating them like a musical motif in a symphony they’d play in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Which makes it sound even more pretentious doesn’t it? But it’s beautiful, not least because of her writing style. Thien’s writing makes Do Not Say We Have Nothing feel less like a history unfolding, and more like a rich tapestry unfurling.

It’s about as satisfying a book as I’ve read all year. I recommend it.


So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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