Author: Madeleine Thien
Publication date: 31st May 2016
Read: 27th June – 8th July 2017
“How the city mesmerised me. Shanghai seemed, like a library or even a single book, to hold the universe within itself.”
Madeleine Thien’s new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.
At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow’s ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai’s daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.
With maturity and sophistication, humour and beauty, a huge heart and impressive understanding, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once beautifully intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of daily life inside China, yet transcendent in its universality.
There’s no doubt that this book is absolutely astounding. In both scope and emotional depth the novel is incredibly detailed, and offers a staggeringly insightful look at how humans treat each other when given the opportunity for violence and power.
Set during the Communist revolution in China, the story follows three generations of a family as they struggle to understand their place in life and fulfill their aspirations. Each generation finds themselves accused of counter-revolutionary tendencies and all are persecuted for their inability to conform.
The three generations we follow are loosely based on the grandparents-parents-children hierarchy; Swirl and her sister Big Mother Knife, Wen, and Ba Lute, are the oldest generation, Sparrow and his cousin Zhuli, Ling and Kai are the middle generation, and Marie and Ai Ming are the youngest.
This simplifies things greatly, and there are numerous other characters whose lives intertwine with these protagonists, but the story offers accounts of their lives in incredibly rich detail. The novel dances back and forth between the 1960s, 70s. 80s. 90s. and present day, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the family tree as it goes. My only real criticism of this book is that the relationships between the characters (especially thei familial connections) don’t become clear until about the 70 page mark. This is due to the fact that the story moves between present and past, never staying with one generation (o time period) for long.
But as the novel progresses and we learn more about these individuals, it’s impossible not to grow attached to them. Many decades pass during the course of the novel and we see the characters grow so much and change as people. We’re privy to most of their lives and it feels like we’ve known them for far longer than 480 pages. We live their trials and experience their sorrow and joy as they experience it. We feel their hardships and pain. The narrative is introspective, so we have continuous access to their inner thoughts and feelings, making it difficult to detach ourselves when something grave happens.
Thien’s narration is startlingly beautiful, describing things with a gentle and studious intent that both carries the plot and builds our understanding of the setting and characters. Take this quote for example:
“Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know they existed.”
It’s simple and yet conveys a powerful message that resonates in our hearts; a moment may not be remembered by the history books in the future, but if you shared its significance with another person, it will always live on in you both.
Language itself plays a huge part of the novel, with speech being policed by the Communist party, and propaganda being created to sway people. Thien’s inclusion of numerous kanji characters is also a wonderful embellishment and it allows us to learn more about the meaning of Chinese names and objects. Music, too, is pivotal to the novel and acts as an allegorical aide to many of the significant political moments. Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli are all musicians and their emotions and deepest thoughts are often reflected in the compositions they choose to play. Sparrow spends many years composing and destroying his own work in a ceaseless cycle and other generations of the family all feel a resonance with music.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is the Tiananmen Square protests. Thien narrates them with such intensity and clarity that it’s hard to believe she wasn’t there. (As far as I’ve been able to research, she wasn’t present.) Politics is hugely central to the novel, but with a temporal setting of the Communist Revolution, how could it not be? People’s lives are twisted and manipulated by the government and it’s saddening to watch them lose control of their own destinies and aspirations.
But, despite this, hope is at the heart of the novel’s message. Although terrible, undeserved things that happen to the characters we’ve come to love, and for all intents and purposes they should feel lost and desolate, they continue to look towards the future, believing in the smallest spark of hope that’s just waiting to be found.