Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien REVIEW

Do Not Say We Have NothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Published by Granta Books
Published 7 July 2016 (first published 31 May 2016)
473 pages
Library book

Author website

NB: I’ve decided to read all of the books long-listed for the Man Booker this year. Other book blogs do this so it seems like a good idea. 


In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-Ming.

As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.

Written with exquisite intimacy, wit and moral complexity, Do Not Say We Have Nothing magnificently brings to life one of the most significant political regimes of the 20th century and its traumatic legacy, which still resonates for a new generation. It is a gripping evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and its effects on personal and national identity, and an unforgettable meditation on China today.


IN A SINGLE YEAR, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. That year, 1989, my mother flew to Hong Kong and laid my father to rest in a cemetery near the Chinese border. Afterwards, distraught, she rushed home to Vancouver where I had been alone. I was ten years old.


I adored Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It’s a great novel. I have no knowledge of Chinese history or the Beijing Demonstrations of 1989. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel is that it brought to life an era in history and a culture I knew practically nothing about. The author, whom I’ve never read before does a brilliant job of bringing China; the culture and people in this era to life. This made fascinating reading. I wanted to read this novel as soon as I read the title. There’s something I love about it. The words Do Not Say We Have Nothing bring to mind images of a lost love. Everything about this remarkable novel stands out in my mind. I loved the characters. They are brilliantly real, made of flesh and blood. I can feel their pain, confusion, occasional bewilderment and desperation. The setting as previously said, is wonderfully rendered and alive. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is painful and heart-breaking at times. The section towards the end that deals with the Tiananmen Square protests was painful to read and reduced me to tears. In short, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a fantastic novel. I loved it and would highly recommend it.




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