If you’ve been following my Man Booker reading this year, you’ll know that I’ve not been particularly happy about many of the books on the longlist. I’ve only thoroughly loved one of them (The North Water), and I’ve found two of them interesting enough to be worth considering (All That Man Is, The Many). The others have been enjoyable but ordinary reads (Work Like Any Other), interesting but flawed (My Name Is Lucy Barton), well-crafted but not enjoyable (Eileen, The Sellout), or ambitious and messy (Hystopia, Serious Sweet).
I was saving Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for late in my reading because it looked like something I’d be likely to love. The book, set partly in Canada but mostly in China, follows a family of musicians through the turmoil of 20th-century China. The book’s narrator, Marie, becomes interested in this history when her mother takes in Ai-Ling, the daughter of a family friend. Ai-Ling’s father, known as Sparrow, taught music to Marie’s father, Kai. Ai-Ling was seeking asylum after the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Kai had committed suicide the previous year in Hong Kong, and Marie realized how much she didn’t know him. As Ai-Ling shares her family story with Marie, she learns more about who her father was and the harrowing past that brought him to Canada, where she could be raised in peace.
This all sounds like a great idea for a book, but I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t deliver. There’s much too much going on, and the drama gets lost in long meditations on the power of music and of story. The characters communicate through a handwritten document that gets copied over again and again, and the story there distracts from the core struggle. And the framing device of Marie learning about Ai-Ling comes and goes (partly, I think, because it doesn’t work to communicate so much of the story in this way).
This book is another example of trying too hard. The main story of Sparrow and Kai and Sparrow’s cousin Zhuli is powerful. Their different paths through the Cultural Revolution are heart-breaking to read about. The book is at its best whenever it turns to the dilemmas these characters face about how to survive in a world where the rules keep changing and questions of when and how to stand up for what’s right.
The trouble is that the book seems to lack confidence in its own story. The commentary on music and literature feel like they’re there to make readers feel the characters’ passion, but the most heart-felt moments are when we see them in the heat of the struggle. The early chapters of the book are particularly vexing because they gloss over some of the particularly harrowing experience of imprisonment and separation. I’m not necessarily wishing for something as explicit and cruel as The North Water, but there’s a distance to the narration, especially early on, that diminishes the book’s power.
There are some standout scenes here that I expect will stick with me. Zhuli’s story in particular shows how merely trying to get through a day can be a struggle in tumultuous times when everyone is required to take a side (and only one side is safe). If this book had been shorter, I think it could have been far more powerful and had a stronger impact. As it is, it’s another Booker disappointment.
Now, with three books left, I’m still hoping for a clear winner. I had mixed feelings about Deborah Levy’s first book, so I wonder if I’ll feel the same about Hot Milk. His Bloody Project looks like a book I could adore, but it could easily go the other way, as Victorian pastiche so often does. I’ve liked the two other books by Coetzee that I’ve read, but the subject matter of The School Days of Jesus is risky. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s safe to say that my tastes are not in close alignment with this year’s Booker judges. Can I write in Larose for the shadow jury?