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“It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

This novel is an encapsulation of the modern history of China, from the early years of Mao’s rise to the present, seen through the lives to two families. It is a story of upheaval but also of the love of music.

The book starts in Vancouver in 1989. Marie—or Ma-Li—is 10 and living with her mother. One day, the police come to the door to tell them that Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, has committed suicide in Hong Kong. Marie realizes that she actually knows very little about him.

In March 1990, Ai Ming, a young woman fleeing the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiannamen Square protestors, comes to live with them. Ai Ming’s father, Sparrow, and Kai were close, and through her, Marie starts to piece together the story of her father’s life.

Their stories are recorded in the handwritten Book of Records, “the shape of a miniature door, bound together with a length of walnut-coloured string”. The book, a mix of fact and fiction, ends up with Marie’s mother. When Marie gives it to Ai Ming, Ai Ming reads to her from it, introducing her to people who seem strangers but—as we will discover—are connected to her. There is Big Mother Knife, with “a jackdaw laugh, a terrible temper, and shouting voice”. Her sister Swirl and husband Wen the Dreamer, the author of the book, have a child, Zhuli. When Swirl and Wen the Dreamer are caught up in the Land Reform for owning property, they leave Zhuli with Big Mother. Zhuli grows up to be a talented violinist.

Zhuli’s love of Western classical music is shared by Big Mother’s son, Sparrow, a gifted composer, who is absorbed by the symphony he is working on. Big Mother named him Sparrow to keep him safe: “the little sparrow was a bird so common that gods and men, idealists and thieves, Communists and Nationalists, would pass over him in disdain”. The third in this trio is Kai, who is a concert pianist. The three become very close, attending a study group that discussed forbidden topics (with the radio turned on loud to discourage any eavesdropping). But soon their world is turned upside down as the Revolution targets musicians who play Western music.

Music is one of the leitmotifs running through the book—the thread binding many of the characters.  Big Mother Knife and Swirl could sing “harmonies so bewitching that problems large and small disappeared the enchantment of their voices”. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli live and breathe Western classical music.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing brings China’s history to life in the way that good fiction can—by humanizing historical events, showing how ordinary people were affected by them: the  betrayals and the lives destroyed, and the need to hide your inner life. As the Professor in the study group says, “This is a skill we perfect from an early age. How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust.”

It is a moving and beautifully written book. As Marie learns the stories of her father and Ai Ming’s family, she discovers the pain and heartache that joins them. This is also a story of a country, as Madelien Thien charts China’s journey from the cataclysmic events of the Revolution to the modern-day consumer society.