Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.

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Book Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Monkey Beach - Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

While Monkey Beach takes place in British Columbia, the same province in which I live, it really is worlds away. Set in the tiny Haisla community of Kitamaat, we follow Lisamarie Hill in the aftermath of her brother Jimmy’s disappearance. The First Nations community (Edited to add: It was brought to my attention that “First Nations” is a specifically Canadian term that not everyone is familiar with. It’s a general term used to refer to  Aboriginal Canadians, other than Inuit or Métis.)  is close-knit and intricately connected. There is heavy history, both ancient and modern and Lisa’s life is peopled with ghosts. Literally and figuratively.

While the present action of the story begins directly after Jimmy’s vanishes at sea, most of the story is actually about Lisa’s childhood. Her relationship with her loving but volatile and mysterious Uncle Mick and her Ma-ma-oo, who teaches Lisa much about their traditional ways but won’t speak about the more recent past of her own life.

Eden Robinson blends realism – Jimmy’s Olympic-hopeful dreams, issues with drugs both locally and the issues that follow members of the community to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the brutal reality of sexual assault – with magic realism. People and spirits appear to Lisa – a sort of gift that she isn’t sure she wants or that benefits her. The boundaries between these two worlds are often blurred, both for the reader and for Lisa. Robinson does well here in letting just the right amount of confusion reign. We aren’t quite sure what’s real – or what we’re expected to believe – just as Lisa isn’t sure. And the more confused and frenetic Lisa’s life grows, the more the two worlds seem to slip together.

This is a very Canadian story. The pull between tradition and modernity is a difficult one and Robinson excellently expresses the troubles of many First Nations communities while, at the same time, creating real, honest, and believable characters. I loved Lisa’s family relationship with her mother and father. Sometimes it seems that solid, loving families in First Nations communities are not portrayed in media enough but the Hills are an excellent example of one. Some knowledge of First Nations issues in Canada – residential schools, for example – is helpful when reading Monkey Beach but Robinson does a decent job of explaining what’s necessary (while still assuming her reader is intelligent).

Monkey Beach is well-deserving of the praise it’s received over the years (Giller Prize winner, Governor General’s Award Nominee, Canada Reads Finalist) and should definitely be read by Canadians today.

Book Review – The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

I’m a few years behind on this train but let me be the most recent person to tell you this: The Golden Mean (Random House Canada, 2009) by Annabel Lyon is a great book.

Lyon brings an extraordinary amount of humanity and relevance to the historical story of Aristotle in Macedon. While the action of the novel takes place before Christ walked the Earth, the characters, their thoughts, and their personalities, seem entirely current and human.

We join Aristotle as he arrives in Macedon for a short stay before he continues on to Athens. Instead, his old friend the king, requests that Aristotle stay to tutor his young son. A king like Philip is a difficult man to refuse and so Aristotle remains in the city of Pella for years, tutoring the young man we know today as Alexander the Great.

The beauty of this novel is that Lyon takes larger-than-life historical figures like Aristotle and Alexander and makes them human. No matter how much or little you know about these men, they are familiar names in the English lexicon and each of us has preconceived notions about them. Lyon strips that down to the story of a teacher and a student.

At the same time, in Aristotle, she creates a character who is more than a teacher or a philosopher. We get to know Aristotle as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. We see him as a friend to Philip, as a scholar who doesn’t quite fit in a warrior culture. As a book lover in a time when books were truly invaluable.

In fact, in one scene where Aristotle expresses his concern over lending out books, I had to remind myself how rare a bound book would have been in that time. The book felt so current and the characters so similar to people I know, that it was easy to forget the ancient setting.

Alexander, too, gets the human treatment. He isn’t Alexander the Great here. He’s a teenage boy who is gifted in some ways but not all and who may be king one day. If all goes well for him. We learn to care for him as Aristotle cares for him, but Lyon does well at keeping Alexander’s fate always in the reader’s mind. The life of a scholar will not be Alexander’s and so as we watch him learn, we’re reminded that this is a brief interlude in his brief life.

It’s a pleasure to read that interlude captured on paper by a talented writer.