Madeleine Thien’s epic third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, set in 2016, is framed by the search for a missing person, Ai-ming, a young woman who came from China to stay with the Chinese-Canadian narrator, Marie, and her mother in Vancouver in 1990, when Marie was eleven years old. Marie had recently lost her father to suicide, during his solo trip to Hong Kong in 1989, a few months after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Now a 37-year-old professor of mathematics, Marie is on a quest to find Ai-ming, who, unable to return to China because of her participation in the Tiananmen Square protests and unable to seek permanent residency in Canada, disappeared after entering the United States on forged papers in 1991.
Thus the novel opens with two absences: those of Ai-ming, who might be alive, and Marie’s father, whose reasons for taking his own life remain opaque to Marie. These absences are intertwined. Conversations between Marie and Ai-ming in Vancouver provide the entry point through which Marie learns about the invisible forces that pulled her father back across the Pacific in midlife. As the narrative expands, the losses multiply. The genealogical chart that guides the reader from the start has entries for “Lost brothers of…” and “Lost sisters of…,” the dates of those lives encompassing the upheavals of twentieth-century China: Japanese military aggression, World War II, civil war, the Communist takeover, Mao’s disastrous policies such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the quashed democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
Most of this masterfully layered novel is this story within the story, of the people who constitute the connection between Marie and Ai-ming. Unbeknownst to Marie, her late father, Kai, was a famous concert pianist in China. Ai-ming’s father, nicknamed Sparrow, was a brilliant composer and Kai’s teacher and mentor. Kai and Sparrow’s devotion to Western classical music is one of the many reasons both are vulnerable to persecution during the Cultural Revolution, when anyone as “bourgeois” as a concert pianist or composer could be publicly denounced, sent to do menial work in the countryside, and/or murdered by a mob of Red Guards. A third character, Sparrow’s cousin Zhuli, a girl with a gift for the violin, suffers alongside them. How each of these characters handles the political pressure is both heartbreaking and, in each case, understandable.
A guiding text within the story is the mysterious Book of Records, a series of notebooks, copied by hand in Chinese, that read like a novel with neither beginning nor end. Marie, whose own Chinese is limited, first encounters it not long after her father’s death, when her mother shows her volume 17. The Book of Records becomes a symbol of resistance and survival in an era when ownership of “counterrevolutionary” literature could be a capital crime.
Woven throughout are celebrations of music, faith in literature’s potential to save souls even under brutal state censorship, and a sense of order that reflects, perhaps, the comfort the narrator takes in both mathematics and Bach. While the lives depicted are chaotic, the structure of their stories is orderly, so that the story of their lives, in contrast to their actual lives, comes to make a kind of sense.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a demanding book, not the kind of novel one can blithely switch on as an audiobook to break up the monotony of household tasks (but you might listen to the music it describes, when you have to stop reading to empty the dishwasher). Because of the complexity of cast and chronology, most readers will need to refer back to the genealogy for approximately the first 100 pages, until the web of characters and their relationships become familiar.
It is worth the effort. Thien, whose sentences are uncluttered and consistent in voice, shows impressive control over the sprawling narrative. Section and chapter breaks make transitions clear. Chinese words are used sparingly and presented by Marie, who is fluent only in English, so she brings an outsider’s fascination to written Chinese and its inherent poetry. For instance: “Ai-ming said that to arrive 来 is made up of the radical for tree 木 and the word not yet 未 : arrival is a tree that is still to come.” Or: “That summer of 1966… my father… went to Tiananmen Square to pledge his loyalty to Chairman Mao and commit himself to fanshen: literally, to turn over one’s body, to liberate oneself.” First names, which in Chinese culture have more leeway than English names for creative range, help create characters as well as worlds: Big Mother Knife, Wen the Dreamer, Old Cat, Ba Lute, Flying Bear. While there is much tragedy in this novel, especially since we already know how badly the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations turned out, there is also tenderness, joy, and comedy.
In today’s political atmosphere in the West, where writers of color are sometimes criticized for exploring their connections to the old country, as if doing so constituted a rejection of the new, Do Not Say We Have Nothing makes an implicit case for the necessity of doing so. Marie’s life, like the lives of most second-generation immigrants, has been shaped by forces she could not see. She is not fluent in the languages in which they took place. She has become a mathematician “to live an existence away from my parents, their affairs and unrequited dreams and, I used to think, my own.” She has chosen to stay in Vancouver rather than expand her life and career beyond her hometown, in part because of the drive to find something that was lost during her childhood there: most obviously, her father, but also the sense of fullness and rightness, the sense of having chosen to live this life, that her parents either lost or never had. Kai’s loss of music can stand in for other forms of loss people endure when persecution drives them out of their home countries. Such is the narrative for many immigrants. As Canada and the U.S. are populated mostly by immigrants and their descendants, the narrative of Marie and Ai-ming’s families captures something essential about being Canadian or American. Meanwhile, the novel challenges simplistic notions of “illegal immigration” through Ai-ming, whose entry to the U.S. on false documents is the least unsafe of her options, all of which are unsafe because she stood up for something America wanted: democracy in China.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is full of scenes that linger in the reader’s imagination. One of the most powerful is of a single person copying a multivolume novel by hand, on paper. In a context where all communication is subject to censorship, standard greetings often contain Maoist slogans, and people are arbitrarily sent far from their families, perhaps never to be seen again, hand-copying becomes a subversive response to state surveillance. Not only does this create an exciting twist in the novel, but it’s also a reminder that as people rightly worried about digital surveillance ourselves, we might try writing by hand, on paper. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, itself unlikely to be publishable in its entirety in China, reminds readers in the free world never to take our freedom for granted (call your senators while you still can!). It does so through the sublime pleasure of a well-told story.