Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Summary and Thoughts

Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality. 


I’ve always been drawn to family epics, especially ones that cover historical moments in various countries’ histories. Noticing the great reviews and award recognition Thien’s book has received, I eagerly picked it up, hoping it would meet my expectations. A sprawling epic tied together by music, written records, and Chinese history, Do Not Say We Have Nothing covers a lot of ground, but unfortunately for me, it did not cover this ground successfully. Though I enjoyed the actual story as well as the historical context woven throughout, this book felt like it was overwritten. I felt easily overwhelmed by mountains of details and tangents that felt unnecessary. This resulted in constant confusion over what was happening, when and to whom, and which characters were important and worth remembering. Even the family tree provided in the beginning did not help. By the time I reached the end, I understood the gist of the story, but the emotional impact of it all was lost. As someone used to reading cultural epics, this was disappointing, and while I wish Thien the best in her future efforts, I have difficulty recommending this novel to others (especially if you are new to the genre). For those well versed and interested in Chinese history, this book may still provide some enjoyment, but if you are unfamiliar with this history you may be left even more in the dust that I was. Consider your own tastes and reading habits before picking this up.

Photo Courtesy of Goodreads

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