books, Reading, Women Writers

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien

“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”


Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is  an epic saga in content if not truly in length. Weighing in at just over 450 pages, this elegantly crafted work details the struggles and loves of three generations of a family in revolutionary China. Using gentle, artistic strokes which evoke the Chinese calligraphy she so often invokes, Thien gives shape and substance to life under Mao, through the cultural revolution, and after the atrocities in Tiananmen Square.

“‘The so-called ‘enemies of the People’ are the ones whose luck has run out, nothing more. … If they want to come for you, they will come, and it doesn’t matter what you read or what you failed to read. The books on your shelves, the music you cherish, the past lives you’ve lived, all these details are just an excuse. In the old days, spite and jealousy drove the eunuchs in all their power struggles. Perhaps we live in a new age, but people don’t change overnight.'”

Jiang Li-Ling, a young girl growing up Canadian, first loses her father, Jiang Kai, when he takes his own life suddenly in 1989, only to “find” him through the stories of a family friend and the samizdat “Book of Records”. Slowly Li-Ling learns who her father was and where he came from. As she delves deeper into his history, she learns at a deeper level about her “home country” of China and about how those who came before have made her who she is.

“‘The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. 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 this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.'”

Thien’s work is eye-opening and touching. She has breathed life into a troubled and often glossed over history, making real the struggles of so many Chinese people – particularly the intellectual and educated masses – whose lives were violently circumscribed and often ended by the communist regime. This story isn’t a big-bad-communism story. It is, instead, a humanistic exploration by an outsider-insider – a girl of Chinese descent who is Western in her upbringing and sense of self. Thien’s beautiful, carefully chosen words weave a complicated plait, bringing together characters from multiple generations whose secrets, loves, and ambitions shape who they are and who they become.

“Sometimes, I think, you can look at a person and know they are full of words. Maybe the words are withheld due to pain or privacy, or maybe subterfuge. Maybe there are knife-edged words waiting to draw blood.”

Thien’s words are razor-sharp; sometimes they carve a delicate sculpture, other times they cause deep wounds. 

Thank you to Granta for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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