- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (October 3, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393354725
- ISBN-13: 978-0393354720
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 171 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Do Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel Paperback – October 3, 2017
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“This is a moving and extraordinary evocation of the 20th-century tragedy of China, and deserves to cement Thien’s reputation as an important and compelling writer.”
“Extraordinary…It recalls the panoramic scale and domestic minutiae of the great 19th-century Russian writers…[A] highly suspenseful drama…as courageous and principled as resistance itself.”
- Financial Times
“[A] graceful, intricate novel whose humanity threads through it like a stirring melodic line.”
- Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“A magnificent epic of Chinese history, richly detailed and beautifully written.”
- The Times
- The New Yorker
“A deeply profound and moving tale where music, mathematics and family history are beautifully woven together in a poetic story…Full of wisdom and complexity, comedy and beauty, Thien has delivered a novel that is both hugely political and severe, but at the same time delicate and intimate, rooted in the tumultuous history of China.”
“Music is at the center of this ambitious saga of totalitarian China, where classical musicians were persecuted during the Maoist Cultural Revolution…Thien’s intricate narrative slowly lays bare the lives of three musical friends living through a totalitarian era when serious music had to survive driven underground, like forbidden love.”
- Sunday Times
“A splendid writer.”
- Alice Munro
“Imagination, Nabokov says, is a form of memory. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a perfect example of how a writer’s imagination keeps alive the memory of a country’s and its people’s past when the country itself tries to erase the history. With insight and compassion, Madeleine Thien presents a compelling tale of China of twentieth century.”
- Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants
About the Author
Madeleine Thien is the author of three novels and a collection of stories, and her work has been translated into twenty-five languages. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lives in Montreal, Canada.
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This perhaps was one of the most dense books from the 2016 Man Booker longlist. It took me quite a while to feel fully immersed in the book and it didn't grab hold of me immediately. Instead, my love for the novel grew slowly over the course of the book. The novel is quite complex and filled with so many characters that initially it is hard to follow. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it, it was just that it required some effort and concentration to figure out who was who and what was happening. However, my perseverance paid off because this was truly a dazzling and heart-wrenching story and one that is well worth the effort. Thien weaves in various narratives that ultimately presents readers with a multifaceted look at how revolution impacts the personal lives of multiple generations.
Both plot and character development were complex and nuanced. Thien tackles historical events from China's civil war up to present day and fictionalizes how these events impacted a wide variety of characters. Throughout the narrative, love of music is front and center (and the books is structured in a similar way to a classical music score). The main families are musicians (Kai a pianist, Sparrow a composer, and Zhuli a violinist). Several key pieces of classical music (Bach's Goldberg Variations) serve as recurring motifs that highlight suffering and sacrifice. The writing is very strong and the book is original. Thien incorporates Chinese characters throughout, explaining the various meanings along with photographs and a variety of musical references.
Once I moved past the initial parts of the novel I found it very compelling and hard to put down. I cried with the characters, astounded at the cruelty people suffered as family and friends turned against each other during the Chinese cultural revolution. I think this book will be a serious contender for the win. I would be astounded if this doesn't make the shortlist. A fantastic book and one that I highly recommend.
Who will enjoy this book? I think this will appeal to those who love historical fiction and who are interested in Chinese history and politics. It is fairly dense and takes some concentration. If you like classical music, you'll probably appreciate this book much more. I recommend reading it while listening to the music referenced in the book. If you are the sort of reader who likes fast-paced, linear narratives you may struggle with this book.
Another modern trend is for stories to occur over periods of decades or more, across generations, across continents and so on. The idea, it seems, is to add weight or grandeur by making the story “epic”. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is also this kind of novel.
Because this novel employs both of these now common techniques, it is not a novel in which nothing happens. In fact many things happen. People appear and disappear. They get arrested and they escape. They move around the world and return. They fall in love and they die. There are tragedies, many tragedies. All about them is history, from the cultural revolution to Tiananmen Square. And, as is also frequently the case these days, there is some element of mysticism or surrealism that acts as yet another device to add moral, spiritual, or intellectual heft to the novel. Indeed, in this swirl of events, sometimes the reader can become confused, which may be intentional.
Yet despite all of these supports and techniques, this novel disappointed me. Ultimately, this book, which wanted to be so weighty, didn’t cause me to think much differently about anything. The characters never seemed particularly real or likely. Stripped away of the book’s devices, the themes didn’t seem particularly original. I was acutely aware of the author at almost all times. Her effort was palpable. Her prose was frequently lyrical but rarely meaningful. She seemed like a competent author attempting to write like she thinks a great author writes, and not quite succeeding.
Finally, the book is long, very long. Length is not necessarily a flaw, but when length doesn’t make the book better, it becomes merely an annoyance. Second, the role of music in the novel is massively overdone. A number of important characters are musicians or composers or both. They talk and think about music constantly and the author continually challenges herself to come up with new ways to describe the sound of Beethoven or Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Mostly these descriptions are ineffective, in part because most readers will not be familiar with many of the pieces.
Madeleine Thein gets high marks for effort, but from a literary perspective she hasn’t accomplished anything that is really noteworthy, in my opinion. I know the prize committees love these kinds of books, and this has all the typical elements of today’s prize-winning novels. This is a very serious book that almost collapses under the weight of its seriousness. For me it was not worth the substantial investment of time.