Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an overlong multi-generational saga mostly set in China that deals with more than 60 years of the country’s history, starting with 1949’s Communist Revolution moving onto the Cultural Revolution (1966) and climaxing with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In between these major events in Chinese history we have a framing story set in Canada and present day Beijing.

There’s a good deal going on in this novel. In among all the revolution Thien shows off a passion for music – in particular Shostakovich, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Prokofiev – and less successfully mathematics. The book is structured so that the two halves of the novel meet at a zero point. The mathematical symbolism of this went a bit over my head, but all the stuff to do with music and musical theory is fantastic, a true highlight of the novel. Classical music gets centre stage because one of the main characters of this multi-generational saga, Sparrow, the son of Mother Knife, cousin of Zhuli, nephew of Wen the Dreamer and Swirl and most importantly best friends with Kai *takes a deep breath* is a brilliant composer. Influenced by the composers noted above he’s working on a symphony that will never see the light of day because of the tight restrictions placed on art and creativity – restrictions that eventually result in the Cultural Revolution. The tragedy, and message, repeated throughout the novel is that strict ideology – right or left – is the best way to kill creativity, imagination and genius.

One of the other main themes of Do Not Say We Have Nothing is this idea of history as a fluid and shifting narrative. This is symbolised by the “Book of Records” a fictional, but incomplete novel, found by Wen the Dreamer and copied by he and his extended family – including Sparrow and Sparrow’s daughter. This collection of journals, as originally written, stopped at number 17 and the family, starting with Wen, have, over the years, been adding to the narrative, telling their own story in line with the intent of the unknown author. This is reflected through the framing nature of Thien’s novel. It opens in Canada in the early 90s where young Marie, whose father has just committed suicide, is introduced to Ai-ming, Sparrow’s daughter, who has escaped to Canada after Tiananmen Square. Through Ai, Marie learns about her own father and his connection to Ai’s father. The bulk of the novel, therefore, is Marie’s retelling of that history, her attempt at creating a “Book of Records” based on what she’s been told by Ai and varied sources she picks up along the way. Marie creates a narrative from the bare bones of history she’s given, a narrative that ultimately makes sense of her father’s suicide. It’s clever stuff. But…

… it’s too long.

There’s so much history in the novel that it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.  A multitude of characters popping in and out of the narrative means it’s difficult to feel fully invested in any particular person (although Big Mother is awesome). Having said that, it’s worth reading the novel to experience Thien’s account of the lead-up to Tiananmen Square and the eventual suppression of the protest. The last third of Do Not Say We Have Nothing could, on its own, have been a short novel. It’s powerful, intense and awful. All the more so that the people at the time, many of whom remembered and survived the Cultural Revolution, could not comprehend why the Army would be shooting at its own people. There’s a visceral aspect to this section, that goes beyond the graphic moments of violence.

This is a good, if overlong, book that brilliant in patches. Probably the most poignant and subtle moment in the whole novel is where Thien in the acknowledgments thanks those in China who helped her but who she is unwilling to name. It reminds you that freedom to speak, to opine, to critique, is not something everyone can take for granted.