Readers begin Do Not Say We Have Nothing with a young child, Marie Jiang, who recounts, “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…I was ten years old.” When the daughter of another deceased father, Ai-ming, comes from China to live with Marie and her mother in Canada, Marie forms a bond to Ai-ming that leads her, years later, through the sweeping narrative of both their family histories. The story of Marie and Ai-ming lies on the periphery of the main scope of the work and allows these family histories to be tucked safely within the boundaries of the 21st century.
Author Madeleine Thien’s storytelling wraps two families in China together through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and then again through the confrontation in Tiananmen Square. Internment, escape, betrayal, uncertainty, instability, suicides, and terror often dominate the text. Nevertheless, moments of beauty, tenderness, hope, and love exist and survive. These notable themes so recurrent in dynamic periods of history, and indeed throughout much of literature, are expressed through the lives of two generations of two families.
Within these families and through these people Thien uses language, music, mathematics, poetry, and literature to grapple with themes of understanding and communication. What do we understand and how do we come to understand? Are there some things it is not possible to understand? Do we need to understand? And on the outskirts of these ideas come more pernicious whisperings: what is it to be quiet and what is it to be silenced?
Do Not Say We Have Nothing expands and contracts with characters, focus, themes, and history. It is at once an account of a wide and tumultuous swathe of history as well as an intimate journey for meaning and understanding. Do Not Say We Have Nothing has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016. It releases today in paperback.
(Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, for the chance to read and review this edition.)