Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Marie's life is shattered when her father commits suicide. In the wake of his death, she and her mother take in Ai-Ming, a friend of the family. Marie is a bit in awe of the older girl's knowledge and certainty, but she is also wary of the reason that Ai-Ming is there: she was involved in the protests in Tiananmen Square and had to flee China. The two families were connected long before the girls were born, when Ai-Ming's father taught Marie's father at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien follows these two families for decades as they grapple with love, betrayal, art, and what it means to be true to yourself.

I love reading historical fiction, but I often find myself starting at piles of WWII era stories. It was nice to read about a different country and time period, as this book takes readers through the Cultural Revolution up into the 1990s. Thien gives readers a historical overview while also showing very specifically the uncertainty and pain that comes with a government that constantly changes administrations and rules. Like a lot of historical fiction, Do Not Say We Have Nothing moves in dual narratives with Marie in the present and her father and Ai-Ming's father in the past. While this kind of narrative device tends to fall flat for me, it was stunning here. As I read, I was aware that I didn't know everything yet but I was happy to settle in and slowly find out how these people were connected and where they would end up.

The best stories are both universal and specific. While the decisions these characters must make are because of the specific time and place that they live in, every reader can relate to the shock of discovering you don't really know a loved one, the mystery and power of story, music, and history, and what we are willing to sacrifice as an individual living within a family or a community. I fully understand why this incredible book made the Man Booker shortlist for 2016. I will be thinking about the characters and their stories for a long time.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
By Madeleine Thien
W.W. Norton and Company November 2016
480 pages
From the library


  1. I like books that stay with you for a long time...and books that introduce me to other cultures and other time periods. I'm putting this one one my list! :)

  2. that's true! all I ever read is WWII! I should check this one out! Thanks for the great review! :)

  3. Haha, yes! I feel the same way about books about WWII. There are just so many of them and I'm also always excited to learn about different time period.