The Novel That Earned America's Biggest Prize (and Others)
480 pages; W.W. Norton
Music and politics are tightly intertwined in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won Canada's prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016 and was short-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize. At its core are two musicians, Kai and Sparrow, who are similarly talented but divided by the cruelties of Mao's Communist regime. For one, political oppression demands protest; for the other, the pressure to give in and follow the party line is too strong. The deeper Thien delves into the two men's pasts in this, her third novel, the fuller the cruelty of history becomes, from the famines of the Great Leap Forward to the ideologically driven public beatings of the Cultural Revolution to the military brutality of the Tiananmen Square protests. Despite its dark themes, it's also an effective novel about how families, their stories and music find ways to persevere in spite of oppression, and Thien writes exquisitely about storytelling and songwriting, from brief studies of Chinese ideograms to lush descriptions of passages of music. For Thien, music is a potent metaphor for the changes that swept across China throughout the 20th century: "atonality etched into a falsely harmonious surface ... brittle ruptures and time speeding up like a wheel spinning ever faster."