Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien


“Love is a revolutionary act.”

This book was heartbreaking, yet beautiful. It follows Marie, whose family is Chinese, but who has grown up in Canada. Her father has recently left her and her mother, and eventually committed suicide in Hong Kong. Suddenly, Marie and her mother are asked to take in and help the daughter of a friend of her father named Ai-Ming. Ai-Ming has been forced to leave China after the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming and Marie become very close. As they live together, Ai-Ming shares the stories of her family and Marie’s father, including sharing a book that’s been passed around both families called The Book of Records. As Marie’s life unfolds, we are also given pieces of her family and Ai-Ming’s family’s history, which covers an epic amount of Chinese history from war with Japan to the rise of Chairman Mao to the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square and on to the present day.

Going in to this novel, I did not know much about Chinese history. I mean, I know China was communist, but beyond that, not much. Until this book, I did not truly grasp what that meant. The history of Marie & Ai-Ming’s families is heartbreaking. It’s full of death and violence and fear. However, it’s also full of love of all different kinds, hope, and beauty that can be found in the midst of horror. Both Ai-Ming & Marie’s fathers are musicians, and the beauty of music is woven throughout the book. There are multiple references to many composers and works of musical greatness, and there are also beautiful phrases about music and life worked in throughout the book. Here are some examples of what I mean:

“Music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.”

I think history is not so different from music, all the different eras, like when the Baroque ended and Classical began, when one kind of understanding transferred into another…Our parents used to blame a person’s suffering on destiny, but when traditional beliefs fell away, we began to understand the deeper reasons for society’s inequalities.”

In addition to exposing me to Chinese history and its effects on these families, this novel had language I could savor. The above quotes are part of it, but there are beautiful musings on life, politics, hope, mathematics, and music that are just lyrical to read. While telling a story that is horrifying at times, the language maintains its beauty despite the ugliness it is sharing. I found myself highlighting many quotes as I read, so that I could read back over them and savor them and their truths later.

Overall, Thien’s novel is one to be cherished and read and understood. It’s important to look at history and learn from it, and that ability is found in this book, even as it also tells a fictional story. The characters in each family are deeply and richly imagined, and you can get a feel for them as soon as they first cross your page. At first, I had trouble keeping track of all of them, but it got easier as I read. It also took me some time to get used to the voice, and the story seemed to drag at first, but I chalk that up to this being my first literary fiction read in a long time…and me forgetting that reading literary fiction can sometimes require more of my brain power than other things I read. I highly recommend this book. It’s important and necessary, and fits in with a lot of my reads this year where I’m really trying to use fiction (and online research after fiction raises questions) to understand worldwide history and oppression.

Note: I received this book through Netgalley & W. W. Norton & Company in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

More Information: Goodreads, Amazon, Author Website

Have you Do Not Say We Have Nothing? What did you think? Let me know below!

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