Let me begin this review by stating that I am so pleased that this book has made the Man Booker shortlist. There have been a few comments bandied around on certain social media sites (Twitter) that the books that are shortlisted for accolades such as the Man Booker are ‘worthy’ and ‘challenging’ rather than ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’, that these books may celebrate the written word but are the wholegrain bread of literature, books that nobody could possibly enjoy reading. Well, I do not agree. I confess that I was glad that the Coetzee didn’t make the shortlist after reading the reviews, but this book is a bright example of why that reverse snobbery is wrong. Books can be both challenging (to our ideas and ideals) and entertaining.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins in Vancouver in the early 1990s. Ten year old Marie lives with her mother, her father recently having committed suicide while in Hong Kong. Barely recovered from this tragedy, Marie’s mother receives a letter from China, from a long lost friend of her dead husband. This friend’s daughter, Ai-ming, has fled China following the Tiananmen Square protests and is in Toronto with little money. Would Marie and her mother be able to provide shelter for a few weeks until she is able to cross the border into the US?
This is a multi-generational story, epic in its scope though the book is not overlong at 463 pages. Through Ai-ming, Marie learns the story which is the main focus of the novel, taking us back to the late 1950s in China, following one family through the Cultural Revolution to the present day. The heart of this history is three musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s: Sparrow, a quiet but talented composer, his cousin Zhuli, a violinist, and their friend Kai, a pianist. As their lives are turned upside down, friends becoming enemies to save themselves, the bonds of loyalty are tested, going on to have devastating consequences.
I studied Chinese history at school, including the Cultural Revolution, but I do feel that I learned so much more through Thien’s characters. It is hard to understand the horror of the ‘struggle sessions’ until you live it through the eyes of someone who is forced to undergo humiliation and beatings themselves, simply for being someone’s daughter or for refusing to denounce another. The events leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests are also covered incredibly well. I didn’t feel beaten around the head with history either. The scenes were natural and plausible, making the horror that much more tangible in how ordinary everything seemed: families split apart, children forced to denounce their parents, televised beatings.
The only criticism I have is that I would have liked to learn a little more about Kai. We focus so closely on the family of Sparrow and Zhuli that I sometimes struggled to understand quite why he made the decisions he makes in this book, though I did understand his attempts at redemption, and how his failure led to his final action.
I think that this book is a strong contender for the prize on 25th October but it is an interesting shortlist and I still have three books to read before I make my own decision. However, Thien’s novel seems closest to the nature of recent winners: historical, epic, beautiful prose that is effortlessly written. If this years judges follow that formula then Thien could very well walk away with the spoils.
Man Booker shortlist reviews: