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2016 Man Booker: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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We are entering the home stretch for our Man Booker Shadow panel. Next up is Madeline Thein’s book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Only two of us read this book, in large part because it was hard to find. Check out what we thought of this nominee…

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein
Published in: 2016
Judges: Jen and Book Worm
Find it/buy it here: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Synopsis (from Amazon): 
Madeleine Thien’s new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, 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 in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.

At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow’s ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai’s daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.

Jen’s Review: This perhaps was one of the most dense books from the longlist that I have read so far. It took me quite a while to feel fully immersed in the book and it didn’t grab hold of me immediately. Instead, my love for the novel grew slowly over the course of the book. The novel is quite complex and filled with so many characters that initially it is hard to follow. While I breezed through the previous 8 books, it took me almost two weeks to read this one. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it, it was just that it required some effort and concentration to figure out who was who and what was happening. However, my perseverance paid off because this was truly a dazzling and heart-wrenching story and one that is well worth the effort. Thien weaves in various narratives that ultimately presents readers with a multifaceted look at how revolution impacts the personal lives of multiple generations.

In truth, if I think about it subjectively, it wasn’t my favorite read of the list (although I loved it), but it is the book that garnered the highest points from me on our ranking system and I think it is the best book on the list. Both plot and character development were complex and nuanced. Thien tackles historical events from China’s civil war up to present day and fictionalizes how these events impacted a wide variety of characters. Throughout the narrative, love of music is front and center (and the books is structured in a similar way to a classical music score). The main families are musicians (Kai a pianist, Sparrow a composer, and Zhuli a violinist). Several key pieces of classical music (Bach’s Goldberg Variations) serve as recurring motifs that highlight suffering and sacrifice. The writing is very strong and the book is original. Thien incorporates Chinese characters throughout, explaining the various meanings along with photographs and a variety of musical references.

Once I moved past the initial parts of the novel I found it very compelling and hard to put down. I cried with the characters, astounded at the cruelty people suffered as family and friends turned against each other during the Chinese cultural revolution. I think this book will be a serious contender for the win. I would be astounded if this doesn’t make the shortlist. A fantastic book and one that I highly recommend.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 19/20

Book Worm’s Review  Unlike Jen, I was immediately drawn into the story and I fell more deeply in love with it and the characters with each passing page. This is the first that I have given full marks for writing quality. While reading each longlist  book I have been asking myself, “is this as poetical and magical as Jeanette Winterson?”This is the first book where I can honestly say, “yes.”

I loved the central musical and mathematical themes, as well as the idea of books within books, each telling a different story and each written for a different reader to find their own meaning within. Books and music can cross time and space and speak to people.

In terms of emotional impact this is a devastating book when you see what revolution ends up costing ordinary people, yet it still manages to maintain hope and has possibly my favourite ending to a book ever.

In summary I love this book and at the moment, if I was judging, this would be my winner but I do have 2 books left to go.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot complexity 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 20/20

Average score across all panelists: 19.5/20

Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Do Not Say We Have Nothing (19.5)
2. Work Like Any Other (18/20)
2. Hot Milk (18/20)
4. The Sellout (17/20)
5. The Many (16.8)
6. Hystopia (16.63)
7. My Name is Lucy Barton (16.13/20)
8. His Bloody Project (14.5)
9. The North Water (13.5/20)
10. Eileen (12.5/20)

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you plan on reading this book? Does it deserve to make the Man Booker Shortlist?

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. wow, I’m bummed to be missing this one

    Liked by 1 person

    September 5, 2016
    • I think you’ll ha e a shot at it with the shortlist 🙂


      September 5, 2016
  2. Tracy S #

    I found this one, used, from a US seller last week, and it’s on the way. After seeing both of your comments on GR, and these reviews, I can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

    September 5, 2016
  3. 😀
    Glad you like this one. This is the book I’m looking most forward to reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 6, 2016
    • I hope you like it as much as we did!


      September 6, 2016
  4. This one I plan on reading, even before it made the Man Booker list. So, I’m glad to hear you both loved it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    September 8, 2016

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