Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeline Thien
“Careful. Ghosts are illegal here,” says Big Mother Knife, warning her comrades of speaking too freely about the past. There’s a lot at stake talking about history in China. It can be used as a weapon, or as a shield, as a path to redemption or to damnation. But Madeline Thien’s new book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is saturated with ghosts, with a past that can barely be buried. Time does not unfold in a straight line in Thien’s novel, but rather it unfolds with the logic of Baroque music, in swirling canons and looping fugues that come round again and again, impressing on the novel a kind of inexorable, inescapable rhythm—perhaps a fitting form for a country where something that one’s mother or father did before you were born marks you out for life, a place where the sins of the father are visited on the son wholesale.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, in the broadest sense, a family saga—it tells the story of three generations of musicians in Communist China, of a family who live by and live for music—but it’s more than that. A sweeping tale that stretches from the refined atmosphere of the Shanghai Conservatory to the desert wilds of the far west of China, and from the earliest days of Mao’s regime through to the present day, the fates of Thien’s characters are intimately tied to that of their nation, to the whims of the regime and the demands of its leaders.
But it’s more than a family saga, and it’s more than a historical epic. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not just about musicians, but about music, and the curious power of redemption that art brings to bear. It’s not just the novel’s characters who live by and live for music, but the novel itself. It pulsates to the forms and the rhythms of classical music—Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations form a skein running through the novel’s fabric, the very architecture of the novel coming to replicate its Baroque repetitions and recapitulations. Thien’s characters are made to suffer immensely for their music, but this music is also something for them to hold onto amid that selfsame suffering, a safe haven amid civil war and cultural revolution.
Rendered in prose of exquisite delicacy and beauty, Thien’s novel plumbs the depths of human relationships and limns the shadowy outlines of how we interact with the past. At once sweeping and intimate, epic in scale and minutely observed, Do Not Say We Have Nothing must be one of the most extraordinary books of the year so far.