Some books, in allowing us to glimpse life’s grace, potential and meaning, convey and emote the depth and textures of being. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an extraordinary novel, filled with shadow and light, replete with contrasting chords of calamitous sound and mournful silence, soulful patience and intense action.

China’s tumultuous, tragic 20th-century history is the setting for this epic of fateful personal sorrows. Spanning almost 70 years, from the 1949 civil war pitting communists against nationalists, to the present-day fallout from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres, in which possibly thousands were killed, Madeleine Thien has crafted an absorbing, provocative and visionary novel that is worthy of its accolades and nomination for the prestigious Man Booker prize last year.

The plot revolves around a family of musicians. The patriarch, Ba Lute, is a dedicated communist soldier, and after the civil war he and his wife, Big Mother Knife, are committed party cadres. Their family survives, barely, the devastation of the Great Leap Forward — 45m people starved to death during the Great Famine of 1959-1960 — but their loyalty counts for nothing as they are wrenched apart by the Cultural Revolution a few years later.

At the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, their introverted son Sparrow, his young niece, violinist Zhuli, and her fellow prodigy Kai live for and through music. But everything they know, and dream of, is crushed when Mao unleashes the Red Guards and instigates cultural and psychological devastation. They are forced, brutally, into soul-destroying decisions about how to survive, as the Communist Party wields its austere authority. Big Mother Knife muses that "Revolutionary music hurts the ears after a while. There’s no nostalgia in it, no place for people to share their sorrows."

Sparrow’s gift is to compose, exquisitely. Now, to endure the system — and as his only form of protest — he must shun music and suppress his creative essence. But he withers: ordinariness causes Sparrow to turn numb to life, and he becomes a bird with broken wings.

Twenty years later, the Tiananmen demonstrations rekindle a rhythm within, but Sparrow is caught in a whirlwind of change he cannot understand. In a flash of heroism he emerges from his invisibility, with further heart-breaking consequences.

Thien reimagines perceptively, poignantly, the initial joyful anticipation of the student protesters and their massed supporters. Then, with vivid fury, she portrays the destruction and mayhem of one of the momentous events of the late 20th century, constructing a literary equivalent of a symphony, unfolding in dramatic twists and turns, clashes of dissonance, and a crescendo of tragedy.

The tale pulses with subplots, symbolism and metaphor. And diverse, complex themes: the importance of art; the trauma of bereavement or not knowing; the resilience of memory; the power of love and family and its intersection with — and triumph over — flawed patriotism or a supposed greater good.

Thien chronicles history through multiple lenses and soaks the narrative with just the right degree of emotional understatement. With sublime sensibility for the elements of music, she floats the works of Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev and especially Johann Sebastian Bach as counterpoints to the cruelties of Mao and his Red Guards. The effect is to create the feel of a haunting soundtrack to the novel — music as mood, metaphor and narrative device.

The human cost

Thien’s skill as a novelist is also as record-keeper, detailing and calibrating history with truth’s conscience, showing the human cost of China’s recent past. And of its current condition: the children of Sparrow and Kai must live with the Tiananmen Square aftermath, and their interconnected story is a catalyst for Thien to examine the integrity of the Chinese state today. In the sense that the book’s tragedies repeat themselves across three generations, it is a devastating counter to the notion of a more benign modern-day China. As one of her characters says: "It’s foolhardy to think a story ends."

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an inevitably sorrowful book. But immersed within the grief is a rejoinder to experience joy and to embrace personal freedoms in whatever way we can. Ultimately, Thien convinces that, irrevocably, we have something of permanence: feelings, hopes, desires. The sky always lightens, and in the vortex of despair, a new page — or even just one meaningful word or musical note — can perhaps be written.

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