Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

So back in October, I was taking a writing course at the University of Ottawa.  As part of that course, we had the opportunity to meet with the university’s writer-in-residence, Madeleine Thien.  If you don’t recognize that name, you clearly don’t pay too close attention to the Canadian fiction scene, because Thien won both the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize for her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Given the chance to meet her, hear her read and ask her questions, I immediately went to pick up the book (well, but the ebook on my kobo) after class.

It took me until last week to read, which, at 500 pages I give myself a break on.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing (DNSWHN for short) “takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century” [Goodreads description].

Thien is a breathtaking writer, I will say that first.  Her way with prose is almost poetic, and there are music and poetry as a major theme throughout the book. I will admit that it took me some time to get into the characters that go through the Cultural Revolution portion of the story.  As a reader, it took me around the first 100 pages or so to really start caring about the characters.  This seems to be a common refrain in the reviews I’ve read on Goodreads, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone in that.

But eventually I came to love Ai-ming, Sparrow, Zhuli, Marie, Kai and the others. I read every page eagerly, wanting to know what became of everyone.  Thien masterfully crafts the characters and twines the stories together in such a subtle way that I didn’t even clue in to the identity of Marie’s father until the middle of the book.  That definitely made him more interesting.

This is not always, or even generally, a very happy book.  But it is an amazing feat of storytelling and one that I gave 5 out of 5 stars to, something that I rarely do. Highly recommend it.