I can’t remember how I first came across Madeline Thien. It was almost certainly in the context of a literature class, and probably the responsibility of L. or D. teaching me Canadian literature. The origins don’t matter so much as knowing that I associate Thien with beautiful writing and themes of family, place and home. So when mutliple folks recommended her new book Do Not Say We Have Nothing I was primed to appreciate it. I say ‘appreciate,’ but I could have also said ‘enjoy,’ or ‘marvel,’ or ‘revel.’ It’s a book that takes for granted that its reader will want and appreciate depth in theme and exquisite beauty in writing. It is not for the lazy reader, and doesn’t assume that such readers exist.
I’ll admit that I finished the book almost two weeks ago on the first day of cottage holiday. As I’m now just past the halfway mark (!) of the incredible Infinite Jest and returned from holiday and an intense work week, my memory of the book has faded from the precise insights I had planned to share with you (ha) to general impressions. A reminder to myself that procrastinating on posting here has consequences: sorry, readers!
So what’s it about? It’s about… so much. Historical fiction (yay), the novel follows two families of musicians in China (and a little bit in Canada through a recurring framing narrative – I’m sure there’s a name for the convention…) throughout the years under Mao, the cultural revolution and the student-led protests of the late 80s. The book does an incredible (really) job of character development, especially in the way it renders the shifting ideological beliefs and commitments of characters. It offered the characters an integrity in their decisions that seemed utterly believable and sympathetic – even while they made what seem to the present-day reader as baffling decisions. As a tone deaf reader with a surface level appreciation for classical music (this even though I’ve 20 years of classical piano training…) I was nevertheless utterly and totally taken in by the descriptions of music. The narrative doesn’t get caught up in the beauty of these descriptions (they really are gorgeous) distracting from the way music worked as a synchedoche for art and arts’ role in politics.
It’s also (as you’d hope in historical fiction) as much about what you can know as what you can’t in tracing a history. Interestingly it’s not just about acknowleding these gaps exist (and using fiction to fill them), as it is about exploring how these fissures in the state and personal histories are made: the causes and consequences of ‘losing’ a thread of the historical/familial record.
Oh my gosh! I almost forgot. It’s absolutely a book that must have been written with P.Huebener’s Timing Canada in mind. The book conspicuously plays with the elasticity, politics and influence of time on national and personal experiences and memories. (P.: did you talk to Thien at any point? I read in the acknowledgements many MAC names and wondered…)
It’s a longer read, so if you choose this one for book club (and you really ought to) be sure to let your readers know that they’ll need some extra reading hours. Extra both for the length and because its a book to be savoured, and a book that requires and deserves a slow and focused reader.
I’ve done myself no favours in following it up with Infinite Jest which seems to require something else entirely of its reader: an endurance sport of meaning making. So yep. My next post will likely be delayed by a few weeks as I make my steady way through DFW. Let’s pretend there’s a resemblance btw my future post and my reading experience, something like the wait will be worth it. Ha.