Reviews / December 2016 (Issue 34)

Contrapuntal Voices Circle Through Time: Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing

by Christopher Hill


Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Granta Books, 2016. 480 pgs.


For many Cha readers, Madeleine Thien's name on the shortlist for the Booker Prize would have been met with a wide smile and perhaps even a fist pump. Although the prize ultimately went to Paul Beatty for The Sellout, Thien's third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing has had its own fair share of literary success, having won Canada's two biggest literary prizes, the Governor General's Award for English-language fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. This is a wonderful achievement for a writer whose humble persona belies her extraordinary talent.

When I opened the first page of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had beside me a stack of multi-coloured sticky notes just in case I came across a line or two that I might use for this review. By the time I had finished, the edge of my copy was ablaze with a psychedelic flame of notes that hopelessly attempted to stake out the novel's breathtaking prose.

Thien is not an author to shy away from daunting topics, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows her previous novel Dogs at the Perimeter, a story that explores the Khmer Rouge's genocide carried out on the people of Cambodia. However, that novel is not merely an account of the horrors of history. One of the exceptional qualities of Thien's writing is how she melds her well-researched narratives with a humanist ethos that contemplates the spirits of those who suffer. Dogs at the Perimeter recounts the ordeal of surviving and escaping genocide, the struggle of living after such trauma and the role art plays in remembering and forgetting.

These themes are also present in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, but the scope is magnified. The novel follows protagonists from two families and several generations as it charts a course through China's twentieth century upheavals including the cataclysms of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. One reviewer describes the novel as "bearing witness" to these events.[i] However, for all the meticulous historical research Thien brings to her writing, this novel is less concerned with the verisimilitude of China's history than capturing the ethos of its victims in song and singing it for all to hear. As the protagonist Marie Jiang contemplates: "Could music record a time that otherwise left no trace?" One of the great strengths of the novel is that it is has sought not just to reproduce the "reality" of twentieth century China, but to put it to song.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a story whose form and voice are wrought in classical music. Musicologists may chafe at this metaphorical impressionism; nonetheless, authors have been inspired by the notion of modelling their writing on music for over a century. Aldous Huxley, for example, in his 1928 novel, Point Counter Point, makes an explicit exercise of using musical counterpoint to shape his novel's chapters. Musical counterpoint is a common feature of classical music but is perhaps most exemplified in the compositions of the baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach; a figure whose music features frequently in Do Not Say We Have Nothing via the recorded performances of the pianist Glenn Gould.

Counterpoint implies polyphony—two or more independent, yet simultaneous, voices that form a greater whole through their resonance. In literature, there can only ever be one narrator or speaker at a time. Authors inspired by counterpoint often attempt to get around this by switching back and forth between speakers, narrators and time periods to create an approximation of music's contrapuntal effect. Richard Powers in his 2001 novel, The Time of Our Singing, uses time travel to allow independent narratives to meet and pass one another simultaneously—an encounter that forms the novel's climax. This is not true counterpoint in the musical sense, after all, words on the page never do quite become notes, but as a literary technique, it can be entrancingly musical.

Thien employs her own literary counterpoint to the structure of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The narrative forms a circle between Marie's first-person narration and several other characters narrating in the third person. Spurred by the novel's poetic tone, the voice of each chapter forms an echo that resonates with the next. The characters orbit one another across geography and time as their words and stories reverberate back and forth. The effect of the novel's structure is a sense that the voices of the characters are speaking a conversation simultaneously. They are separated by space and time, and yet are interdependent, like musical notes moving in counterpoint.

The novel's structure accentuates the coalescence of past, present and future. This is an important motif in the narrative and one many of the characters reflect upon. The young violinist Zhuli, for example, describes her own frustration at her mother's inability to recover from the trauma of surviving several years in a re-education camp:

Zhuli wanted to shake her mother, drag her mind back from the camps and make her present. What mattered was the here and now and not the life before, what mattered were the changeable things of today and tomorrow and not the ever, infinitely, unbearably unchanging yesterday. She got a broom and quickly swept up the beans, rinsed them in the sink and spread them to dry on a clean cloth.

Zhuli's desire to escape the past, and her lament of her mother, embodies the greater conflict that China has faced in wrestling with the tragedies that have beset it. Marie illustrates this theme in her description of the "Book of Records," a fictional text that begins to merge with the protagonists' lives as they read and make copies of it:

Ai Ming continued to tell me the story of the Book of Records, which was not, after all, a recapitulation of those thirty-one notebooks, but about a life much closer to my own. A story that contained my history and would contain my future.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing conjures a history that has "left no trace" in contemporary China. Following the death of her father, Marie personifies "quiet (qù ) … 闃 … that moved into our minds and stormed like an ocean inside my mother and me." This "quiet" alludes to an isolation or closing off from the past. This seems an apt analogy for a culture whose own "Book of Records" traces its history back over 4,000 years, but nevertheless, has left many pages of the past century empty. The novel's most salient message, then, is that the present and future are forever linked with "the ever, infinitely, unbearably unchanging yesterday."


[i] Rathore, Rudrapriya, "Saying Too Much," The Walrus. The Walrus Foundation., 7 June 2016. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

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