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.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing has one of the most arresting openings I’ve read in a while. The narrator who speaks these words has several names – her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling; her English name, Marie Jiang, and Girl, her father’s nickname for her because the Chinese word for daughter and girl is the same. She lives in Vancouver, working as a university professor in mathematics, but the story that concerns her now is that of her father and, in particular, events during the creation of The People’s Republic of China and the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
After Marie’s father dies, her mother introduces her to the Book of Records. Passed down through their family, it tells the story of Da-Wei and May Fourth. They only have book 17 of numerous volumes and Marie’s mother tells her it’s a story copied out by a ‘refined calligrapher’.
At the end of the same year, Marie’s mother takes a young woman into their home. Nineteen-year-old, Ai-ming has left Beijing after being part of the events in Tiananmen Square. Marie’s mother has agreed she can live with them for the time being as Ai-ming’s father was Marie’s father’s composition teacher when he was a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
Although Marie is initially hostile to Ai-ming, she relents as Ai-ming begins to share the contents of the Book of Records and how the book came to be part of their family. The latter is one of many stories her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, told her:
“I assumed.” Ai-ming told me, “that when Big Mother’s stories finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, ‘But that’s how the world is, isn’t it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?’
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a number of things: it is the story of a family’s history, it is a story of life in China during a turbulent period in its history; it is a story of love, and it is a meditation on art and its role in our lives. All of these parts are interesting and make for a hugely satisfying novel but it is Thien’s examination of art which I found most interesting.
Many of Thien’s characters are storytellers: Big Mother Knife, her brother-in-law – Wen the Dreamer, Ai-ming, and Marie. While Marie’s father, Kai, Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, and Ai-ming’s aunt, Zhuki, are musicians and composers. Her exploration of their craft asks questions around the value of art in a closed society and what benefit stories serve to future generations. The former is neatly summed up in a paragraph from Sparrow’s perspective:
He wanted to tell his mother about an entirely different recording, Bach’s six sonatas for the same two instruments. Throughout his life, Bach had returned to these six pieces, polishing and revising them, rewriting them as he grew older. They were almost unbearably beautiful, as if the composer wanted to find out how much this most basic of sonata forms – exposition, development, recapitulation – could hold, and in what ways containment could hold a freedom, a life.
The role of storytelling in the way in which the Book of Record is copied but altered slightly or details inserted in the retelling, making it relevant to the new narrators and readers. Thien interweaves this discussion into the narrative without it ever threatening to overwhelm the story itself. It’s a skilful consideration of the work Thien herself is doing too.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a complex, satisfying work on family, society, history and art and the impact all four have on the future.
Thanks to Granta for the review copy.