Book reviews, Historic, Literary fiction, Man Booker Prize

Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

This review of Do Not Say We Have Nothing was provided by Claire O’Sullivan of the Blackwell’s Newcastle book club, who reviewed all of the titles on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Marie, also known as Jian Li-ling, is a ten-year-old Chinese girl living with her mother in Vancouver, Canada. Into her home arrives Ai-Ming, who has fled the brutal events following the student occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The two are linked through the close friendships of their fathers, Sparrow and Kai.

What follows is a thought-provoking, haunting and beautiful intergenerational saga looking back over time. Marie, at the age of ten, is the descendant removed from the lives of her forebears and yet touched by their experiences. This resonance grows as she ages and looks back at her family and cultural history.

The lives of the extended family and friends that come before Marie and Ai-Ming provide a breathtaking human insight into a brutalising regime over several decades.

We meet two sisters, Big Mother and Swirl, and their respective husbands, Sparrow and Kai. All are subject to the horrifying regime and yet remain dignified and thoughtful, capable of love in a society which denounces such actions and seeks to divide and conquer families. Their children, in turn, become involved in the struggle against the regime with devastating consequences.

From the late Cultural Revolution, through to the brutal Tiananmen Square protests and massacre of 1989, regimes are confronted. The punishing is brutal and at times absurd. Hunger, indeed starvation, the denouncing of friends and relatives, suspicion, violence and death are recounted with clarity.

The Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the city of Beijing and rural provinces provide the geographical backdrop. The psychological backdrop is a juxtaposition of the beauty of music, writing and numbers with daily hunger, poverty, violence and family separation.

As you read, write a family tree, it really helps; then submerge yourself. This is a profound, beautifully written piece of work which remains in my thoughts long after finishing. Longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I hope this makes the shortlist.

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