I took the first week of the New Year off work to give myself time to recuperate from all the usual Christmas excesses. It didn’t go exactly to plan because, in between catching up on sleep and reading my new books, I took it in to my head to paint the bedroom and this inevitably took longer, and involved more effort, than I had expected. As these things always do. It meant I ended up reading much of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a gift from P, while sitting on the cold floor of our empty bedroom waiting for paint to dry, although I also snatched a few minutes of reading time in the café at Ikea and in the waiting area of Argos. Ordinarily I’d probably have put the book aside until I had more time but in this case I was enjoying it so much that it wasn’t really an option I was willing to consider.
I don’t know very much about China’s Cultural Revolution although I did take a course on the subject in my second year of university; the module seminar was first thing on a Friday, the morning after the weekly two-for-one deal on drinks at the Student Union, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I very rarely made it to class. I feel pretty bad about it now. Still, I seem to have gleaned enough to know that the characters in this book might have a rough ride ahead of them. And I was certainly right about that. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing Thien takes three generations of one extended family of musicians through more than sixty years of Chinese history, from the early days of the Maoist revolution through resettlement, famine, denunciation, imprisonment and protest. The story begins with Big Mother Knife and her sister Swirl, tea house singers in the days before the war, but focuses most of all on their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are changed forever when the government decides that they and their music are undesirable in the new China. It’s the third generation – two young women who meet in Canada following the Tiananmen Square protests – who piece together their complicated shared family history and try to make sense of all that has gone before them.
I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer and I got smaller and smaller. When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off. “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?”
It would be quite easy for me to do a standard review post here where I list all the things I like (Wen the Dreamer, the Book of Records, Zhuli, the music and the way Thien explains the subtle differences between Chinese characters….) and dislike (nothing much – maybe the slow build up to Tiananmen?) about this novel but that doesn’t seem quite right here because I don’t think these are necessarily the things that stayed with me afterwards. Instead, I think what I will remember most is my emotional response to this novel, or at least to certain scenes. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is powerful, relentless stuff and (oh the cliché) I really found it hard to put it down. Moreover, on one occasion about midway through, when the hysterical denunciations of Conservatory students were reaching their peak, I decided it’d be best to just put the book down and walk away for an hour or two. I think I was starting to feel a bit hysterical myself. It says something about the way Thien sweeps you up into this tale; she weaves its various threads together beautifully and keeps them taut almost to the end so you’re fully entangled in everything you read. I found it very difficult to shake this story off after I turned the last page and I was still wondering about Ai-Ming several days later.
Since finishing this I’ve read a couple more books but I’ve once again fallen way behind on my posts. Expect a quick flurry of reviews very soon!