#AW80Books: Madeleine Thien’s ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

Some books are so brilliant, they’re difficult to put down. Sometimes the opposite is true, too. A novel can be so powerful that it can’t be rushed, so important that I need to wait until I know I can read undisturbed, to give it the attention it deserves. I found that with Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016). I’ve been eeking it out for weeks, drawing out the beautifully written painful exploration of  loss, powerlessness and devastating pointlessness.

Do not say we have nothing

The novel is set in China, and thus qualifies as my next stop on our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge (#AW80Books). I’ve read novels about the history of Twentieth Century China before, and have always found it hard to envisage daily life where the social and political rules are so different from the ones I am used to. However, the evocation of an oppressed people in Do Not Say We Have Nothing really got under my skin. I think I felt it so keenly because music is so central to the novel. There is much mention of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach, particularly the Goldberg Variations, a piece that I have become very fond of since being introduced to it by my Bach-mad son. Funnily enough, I had actually recommended the book to him not long ago on that very basis, and we ended up reading it at the same time, he on his container ship on the China Sea, and me at home in Wales.

Maybe it was because I’m missing my boy and his obsession with music so much, but I found the futility of wasted talent, creative expression and joy of the central characters brutally affecting. I’m still burning in the wake of finishing the novel and can’t bring myself to formulate my thoughts into any semblance of a proper review. To do so would feel like trying to fit it into a neat box with a lid, so I won’t. I shall remain defiantly impressionistic.

I’ve harped on about (and linked to) Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations before, but you can never hear it too many times so here it is again. The first is the 1955 recording, and the second the 1981 one.

Finally, I shall also leave a link to his performance of another of Bach’s works, the Sonata No.4 in C Minor, performed with Yehudi Menuhin.