At the beginning of Madeleine Thien's majestically epic novel “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” we meet Li-ling, a girl of Chinese descent whose family live in Canada. Her father Jiang Kai left in 1989 when she was ten years old to travel to Hong Kong where he eventually committed suicide. Li-ling can't begin to understand the full complexity of why her father chose to end his life until meeting Ai-ming, a young woman who leaves China after the historic student protests in Tiananmen Square which resulted in hundreds (if not thousands) of civilian deaths after martial law was declared. From Ai-ming's stories about her family and particularly her father Sparrow who was a musical student taught by Kai in Mao's communist China, Li-Ling embarks on a lifelong search for the truth about her father and the country her family came from. This ambitious novel spans fifty years of China's history recounting the heartrending impact the political system has upon a fascinating artistic family.

Li-Ling's journey of discovery is spread out over the novel. She notes how “It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.” Reflecting this structure of time, the majority of the story refers back to earlier periods in the family's development. Although this felt somewhat confusing at first given the large cast of characters the story eventually became much easier to follow. It's engrossing reading how strong characters like Ai-ming's grandmother Big Mother Knife, a translator named The Lady Dostoevsky and Comrade Glass Eye survive through or manipulate a repressive system to come through and get what they want.

Because information is actively suppressed or destroyed by the Red Guards, documents accumulate significant value ensuring the people's stories and culture are preserved. A character called Old Cat states “All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from the universe, but on and on we copy.” The significant Book of Records is a document which is painstakingly hand copied to be passed along through generations, across continents and periods of strife. It's an epic tale told in parts which has been broken up and scattered during the social and political upheaval of Chairman Mao’s revolutionized China. But it also represents the embodiment of our culture, the stories which cannot be forgotten though many people prefer to forget them or would actively try to silence them. Encoded within the handwritten variations of this book are the stories of the people who proceed it. Thien's story recounts the dramatic lengths to which the characters seek ‘To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.’

The book also shows how there is a special freedom in music to express emotion and personal history in a way words can't. Thien writes how “Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because a sound made no absolute claim on meaning. Any word, on the other hand, could be forced to signify its opposite.” The Chinese censors can't strictly interpret the music that the characters produce as anti-revolutionary, but they can stop it by branding it as a bourgeois luxury. Sparrow is a talented composer who is forced to work for many years in a factory. It's tragic reading about how his and many other people's natural talents are suppressed and squandered for the sake of a strict system focused on organized industrial production.

Thien has a particularly beautiful way of writing about the way music affects her characters. When Sparrow hears Bach he feels that “the notes collided into him. They ran up and down his spine, and seemed to dismantle him into a thousand pieces of the whole, where each part was more complete and more alive than his entire self had ever been.” It's moving how music reaches the characters on an emotional level freeing them from their particular circumstances. Sparrow's niece Zhuli feels “Inside her head, the music built columns and arches, it cleared a space within and without, a new consciousness. So there were worlds buried inside other worlds but first you had to find the opening and the entryway.” It's inspiring how the characters need for this music supersedes the dictates of the political system that tries to suppress it so sheets of music are hidden beneath floorboards waiting to be resurrected and played again at some later point.

Bach on a Chinese stamp

Bach on a Chinese stamp

Frequent references are made to Russian composers and the stories of the musicians involved in this novel in some ways parallel the difficulty these Russian artists experienced under their own communist system. Earlier this year I read Julian Barnes' “The Noise of Time” where he brought Shostakovich to life and showed how music is an art form capable of triumphing over time. Zhuli plays the music of Prokfiev, a “disgraced Russian” and this makes a beautiful touchstone between two characters living under repressive political systems separated by space and time who find freedom and expression in music.

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” builds to the agonizingly brutal instance of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Having experienced the lives of this family through all the social and political developments of the country proceeding this tragedy, it's context and meaning is brought much more vividly to life. It shows the complexity and enormous scale of the protest. Big Mother observes how “In this country, rage had no place to exist except deep inside, turned against oneself.” After years of suppression, feelings which had been turned inward are brought violently out into the open. This novel is a tremendously enlightening and immersive story told with great skill and poetic beauty.