Sealskin by Su Bristow

A ‘selkie‘ is a mythological creature found in Scottish, Irish, Faroese and Icelandic folklore. They are creatures that live in the sea as seals and can shed their skin on land to temporarily obtain the human form.

Su Bristow has taken one of the legends, which is better to discover after you’ve read the story, and woven a coming of age story around it, about a young man unsure of himself, who, through his encounter with a selkie, transforms into a more confident and emotionally intelligent version of himself.

Living on the Scottish coast, Donald is uncomfortable in his own skin and resistant to his mother’s suggestion, that he join his Uncle and the lads who’ve mocked him in the past on the fishing boat, the work his father had done before the sea claimed him. He prefers the solitary task of checking his crab pots, staying close to the shore, his brooding thoughts uninterrupted.

“Picking his way down the path to the shore, on his own at last, he began to feel easier. A night like this! Where else would he be but alone? Cooped up on the boat with the others, there’d have been no time to look, to listen,  to breathe it all in; but out here, with the vastness of sky and sea all to himself, a man might witness marvels.”

Donald and his mother’s live will change course quickly after that night, after he observes something mystical and makes a terrible error of judgement. He in turn, ignores, accepts and tries to atone for his mistake, his life becoming evermore entwined with the fates of his extended family and the people of his village, in doing so.

He becomes more observant and aware of human frailty and how his contribution might ease the path of difficulty and pleasure for those around him.

“It came to him that the way she watched was different from his own. He dealt with people warily, looking out for blows or pitfalls, always glad when the ordeal was over. Nor was she like the priest, watching in order to manage his flock rather than to be like them. She seemed to have no sense of separation, no self-consciousness, and yet she was set further apart then all of them.”

As soon as I heard about this book and its premise, I knew I wanted to read it, it has a little of the magic that made Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child such an enigmatic and yet compelling novel to read. It also reminded me of the equally wonderful novel The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris, based on the true story of Italian prisoner of war soldiers held on the Scottish island of Orkney.

It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking narrative that combines the harshness and wonder of a coastal landscape and lifestyle, with its moments of beauty and hardship, and how it is be different within a community of relatively like-minded souls, how to celebrate that difference and learn to accept it within ourselves. Perfect summer reading!

 

Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri tr. Katherine Gregor

Eva Sleeps is a thought-provoking novel that takes the reader on multiple journeys, as the narrative slowly unravels the mystery that connects Eva, her mother Gerda and Vito.

“Where’s Eva anyway?”

“Eva is sleeping.”

The brown parcel travelled backward along the road it had taken to arrive at that spot: two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-four kilometres in total,there and back.

Eva Sleeps is a reference from Paradise Lost and a quote in the book that is repeated both in the prologue (above) and at the end of the novel, referring to the delivery of a package that arrives from the postal worker for Eva, one that her mother rejects, saying it is unwanted. It is an indirect introduction to the three main characters, introducing a connection that will be alluded through throughout and revealed  by the end after we too have travelled that same journey the package takes.

“Let Eve (for I have drench’d her eyes, Here sleep below, while thou to foresight wak’st.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book XI

We meet Eva as she is met at Munich airport by Carlo, he will drive her the three-hour journey across two borders to her home in Sudtirol/Alto Adige in a German-speaking part of northern Italy. It is the beginning of the Easter holiday and the beginning of a longer journey she will make when she receives the call from Vito telling her he doesn’t have long to live and that he’d like to see her again.

Eva’s chapters are titled Kilometre 0, Kilometres 0-35, up to Kilometre 1397 ending with Kilometre 0, Today. These chapters contain her thoughts and observations as she makes the 1400km journey towards the dying Vito in Sicily.

The interposing chapters are Gerda’s story and they are labelled by the years within which her story is narrated, beginning in 1919, a year in which:

“…the peace treaty was being signed in Saint-Germain, with which the victorious powers of the Great War – France, especially – wishing to punish the dying Austrian Empire, assigned South Tyrol to Italy. Italy was very surprised. There had always been talk of liberating Trento and Trieste, but never Bolzano – let alone Bozen. It was perfectly logical. South Tyrolean’s were German people, perfectly at ease in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and didn’t need anyone to liberate them. Even so, after a war that had certainly not been won on the battlefield, Italy ended up with that stretch of the Alps as their unexpected booty.”

It was also the year her father inherited the family home after the death of his parents. The fate of the family would forever be affected by that political decision, for all those native to the area, who overnight were ruled in a language and culture foreign to their ways, making them like strangers in their own country, as people from the poorer southern parts of Italy were sent to live among them, in an effort to try to make these tall, blond people more Italian.

Gerda’s family is poor and as soon as she is old enough she is sent out to work, she works in the kitchen of a large hotel and alongside her striking beauty, develops a talent for creating delectable local dishes, twin characteristics that will lift her out of poverty and give her a measure of independence, much required after her father disowned her upon the arrival of Eva. She finds a way to continue working without losing her daughter.

Alongside the enthralling life of Gerda, who is the most well-rounded and well-known of the characters we follow, we are exposed to the context of the freedom fights of Alto Adige, those who protested against the cultural white-washing, labelled terrorists for their protests when they turn violent.

“Until a few years ago, when you said you were a German speaker from Alto Adige, they thought you were a terrorist. At the very least they’d ask: but why do you people hate Italians so much?

Then things changed. In the weekly supplement of the newspaper, a few months ago, the front cover was devoted to separatist ethnic movements in Europe. It mentioned:

Corsica, Slovakia, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and the Po Valley.

The Po Valley!

No sign of Alto Adige.

Eva Sleeps is a provocative novel of journeys, of connections and contradictions across cultures, of love in its many forms, of struggles and conflicts, identity and how we are connected to place.

Told in a compelling narrative while backgrounding the fascinating and little known history of this part of northern Italy, it does what the historical novels often do best, increase our historical knowledge, while highlighting the ricochet effects political decisions can have on humanity, on innocent civilians, making us understand why the oppression that results turn some towards violence and others to seek love, as ways to dull the pain.

The novel is being made into a film.

Note: This book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Europa Editions.

 

The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

The Last Gods of Indochine is a fascinating work of historical fiction, covering two periods of history in a dual narrative, whose links eventually become clear in a surprising and unsuspecting conclusion.

The dual narrative follows firstly the journey of a young woman recovering from her role as a volunteer in World War I, who decides in 1921 to leave England and follow in her French grandfather’s footsteps to Cambodia. Afflicted by strange dreams that seem to relate to the area she is visiting, she tries to unravel their mystery and some of the things written in her grandfather’s journals that don’t initially appear to make sense.

While Jacquie Mouhot is a fictional character, her inspiration Henri Mouhot is a real historical figure, the first French explorer to rediscover the lost city of Angkor (though it hadn’t been forgotten in the region) and the grand monuments, whose temples, carvings and structure would reveal much about life during the 800 years (802-1431 AD) that the Khmer Empire was at its heights.

In the second narrative we meet Paaku and his teenage friend in 1294 Angkor, just before the beginning of the decline of the vast Khmer Empire and civilisation, a disappearance that mystified historians for many years, how a city of over 1 million inhabitants could disappear, its monuments and infrastructure reclaimed by the jungle, covered over as if it was never there.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb – Photo from 1989 by J.M. Strobino

Even the gravestone memorial to the explorer Henri Mouhot was reclaimed by the jungle, pierced by the insistent roots of a tree, and forgotten for many years; in recent years a new path has been created to try to resurrect it as a visiting place for travellers.

Events change the destiny of these two young men, highlighting the beliefs and vulnerabilities inherent within the culture at the time, that may have contributed to its demise.

For more about my thoughts on the novel and to read the article I wrote on the Rise and Fall of the Khmer Empire, you can visit The Bookbrowse Review.

The Last Gods of Indochine was nominated for the The Man Booker Asian Literary Prize, an award that sadly, has also disappeared.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher for review at Bookbrowse.com

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio De Giovanni tr. Andrew Shegaar #WorldNoir

Crime fiction isn’t my usual choice, but I’ve been reading Italian literature in the past week, and since this is also set in Naples and came from Europa Editions, I decided to take a break from the more literary style and read this novel classified as ‘world noir‘ (a tribute and new imprint dedicated to the best in international crime fiction).

A quick look up tells me that noir fiction has its roots in hard-boiled fiction ( a tough, unsentimental style American of crime writing) where the protagonist is often an outcast, alienated. However, Kim Fay from LA Review of Books, when reading noir, used to preparing herself for ‘bleak cynicism and uncomfortable moral ambiguity’ is pleasantly surprised, referring to De Giovanni’s Pizzofalcone precinct series and empathetic characters as ‘tender noir’:

“Reading the Pizzofalcone Precinct series, by Maurizio de Giovanni, I quickly discovered that I can still be surprised. These books didn’t get to me with an extra dose of soul-sucking fatalism or some harrowing new breed of self-destructive protagonist. Instead, their emotional “gotcha!” came in the unexpected form of tenderness.

Tender noir? Is such a thing possible? Yes — and it adds a richness that many noir novels lack.” Kim Fay, LARB

As for alienated, the entire team at the Pizzofalcone precinct in Naples fit that mould, the place was about to be closed down, due to the previous investigative branch have been suspended for being implicated in a crime, the precinct may still be shut down, depending on how this new team of misfits work together and whether they succeed.
The Pizzofalcone precinct covers four distinct neighbourhoods: upmarket, poor, business and historic, it is like a microcosm of the city of Naples, an area where each of it many elements are likely to sidle up against one another.

“The precinct isn’t big, but its crowded; it encompasses a part of the Spanish Quarter and stretches on down to the waterfront. Four different worlds, in other words: the lumpenproletariat, as we used to say in the old days; the white-collar middle class; the businessmen of the upper middle-class; and the aristocracy. Everything except manufacturing, in an area barely three kilometres on a side. One of the oldest police districts in the city, small but strategic.”

All of them have been transferred from their previous workplaces, renegades who are unwelcome where they currently are, involved in some kind of misdemeanour – although in the case of the Sicilican Inspector Lojacono, who becomes the lead investigator of the new murder case, he was both specially requested due to his reputation and passed on without regret, due to allegations of corruption that have tainted and alienated him, since he showed everyone up in his last case by solving it while everyone else was looking in a different direction.

He is new to Naples, he has a teenage daughter he is worried about, a pizza waitress who is eyeing him up and a high-ranking magistrate whom he daydreams inappropriately of.

The wife of a notary is found dead in their apartment with no forced entry and so they set to and investigate, introducing us to various elements of working and non-working Neapolitan life, including an elderly woman who sits at her window all day, every day and is suspicious about the new occupant of an apartment opposite her, a beautiful young woman also never leaves her apartment.

We are also introduced to the obsession of the policemen Giorgio Pisanelli, who collects information about all the recent suicides in the precinct, convinced there is a connection between them and that they are not suicides.

It’s a well-paced, intriguing read, a few short chapters in italics, portraying characters who may be suspects, characters who are trying to hide something, this narrative adding to the mystery and has the reader trying to guess who it might be.  I really enjoyed it and even though I didn’t guess the revelation at the end, I appreciated that it wasn’t overly full of twists, neither was it completely obvious.

The author succeeds in portraying Naples both through the eyes of the newcomer and with the familiarity of a local, adding a compelling element of discovery and opening the way for future instalments. The team was well portrayed, interesting but quirky characters, that clearly will continue, since the resolution of this crime should serve to keep the precinct open, these renegades forming into a solid team while navigating the fine edge between the ongoing surety of their positions and a volatile potential to destroy it with one reckless mistake.

Maurizio de Giovanni was born in Naples in 1958 and for many years worked in a bank, though not a natural vocation, his colleagues attest he always had his nose in a book and it was in fact they who entered him in a short story competition in 2005 for ‘giallo novelists’ (a 20th-century Italian mystery, thriller or horror genre of literature and film) that was the catalyst to his becoming a successful crime writer.

That story introduced detective Commissario Ricciardi and spawned a series of books set in 1930 Naples, fascist Italy. His parents were born in 1930’s Naples, their lives and experiences clearly an influence contributing to his passionate for pre-war Naples of the 1930’s and the city today.

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, originally published in 2013, marked his transition from the noir genre to the police procedural and a move from the 1930’s to contemporary life in Naples. The series featuring Inspector Lojacono continues (there are six books in Italian) and is being made into a television series in 2017.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Edition, for providing a copy of this book.

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

A fabulous collections of correspondence and essay like responses to interview questions over a period of twenty-five years since the publication of her first novel Troubling Love.

The title ‘Frantumaglia‘, a fabulous word left to her by her mother, in her Neapolitan dialect, a word she used to describe how she felt when racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.

She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fit of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.

And so for her characters, this is what suffering is, looking onto the frantumaglia, the jumble of fragments inside.

The first half chiefly concerns communication around Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment, the latter written ten years after her debut, although other stories were written in between but never published, the author not happy with them as she so piercingly reveals:

I haven’t written two books in ten years, I’ve written and rewritten many. But Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and did so without keeping a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds with the obligatory detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that is not my path.

The second half implies a delay in the publication of the collection to include interviews and question-responses around the Neapolitan Quartet, beginning with the renowned My Brilliant Friend.

Readers ask poignant questions, while the media tend to obsess about her decision to remain absent (as opposed to anonymous) from promotional activity, to which she has many responses, one here in a letter to the journalist Goffredo Fofi:

In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole. I’ve discovered, by publishing, that there is a certain relief in the fact that the moment the text becomes a printed book it goes elsewhere. Before, it was the text that was pestering me; now I’d have to run after it. I decided not to.

Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others-in some measure one becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes oneself again.

…I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

She shares her literary influences (works of literature about abandoned women) from classic Greek myths, Ariadne to Medea, Dido to the more contemporary Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, referring to recurring themes of abandonment, separation and struggle. She mentions literary favourites, Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.

One interviewer asks why in her early novels, her characters depict women who suffer, to which she responds:

The suffering of Delia, Olga, Leda is the result of disappointment. What they expected from life – they are women who sought to break with the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers – does not arrive. Old ghosts arrive instead, the same ones with whom the women of the past had to reckon. The difference is that these women don’t submit to them passively. Instead, they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums. I feel them not as women who are suffering but as women who are struggling.

And on comparing Olga to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, who she sees as descendants of Dido and Medea, though they have lost the obscure force that pushed those heroines of the ancient world to such brutal forms of resistance and revenge, they instead experience their abandonment as a punishment for their sins.

Olga, on the other hand, is an educated woman of today, influenced by the battle against the patriarchy. She knows what can happen to her and tries not to be destroyed by abandonment. Hers is the story of how she resists, of how she touches bottom and returns, of how abandonment changes her without annihilating her.

In an interview, Stefania Scateni from the publication l’Unità, refers to Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment as destroyed by one love, seeking another with her neighbour. He asks what Ferrante thinks of love.

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side and that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go. The need for love sweeps away every other need and, on the other hand, motivates all our actions.

She again refers to the Greek classics, to Book 4 of the Aeneid, where the construction of Carthage stops when Dido falls in love.

Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and others.

The correspondence with the Director of Troubling Love (L’amore molesto), Mario Martone is illuminating, to read of Ferrante’s humble hesitancy in contributing to a form she confessed to know nothing about, followed by her exemplary input to the process and finally the unsent letter, many months later when she finally saw the film and was so affected by what he had created. It makes me want to read her debut novel and watch the original cult film now.

Frantumagli is an excellent accompaniment to the novels of Elena Ferrante and insight into this writer’s journey and process, in particular the inspiration behind her characters, settings and recurring themes.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a copy of this beautiful book.

Buy a copy of any of Elena Ferrante’s novels via Book Depository here.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn,
when we will be fast asleep.
Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

I like the saying “this too shall pass”, it’s a way of being in the difficult moment, of realising that it will be replaced by something else, it represents a sliver of hope, a reminder of gratitude, that thoughts are not reality, they can be changed. So this quote that “not everything will pass” evokes a kind of heartfelt stab for me, for it pierces that hope and reminds us that some things stay, that they are not seeds of hope, they are reminders of a sadness that endures.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ felt to me like a novel of ancestral DNA and how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect onto people behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. This reminds me of what Yaa Gyasi achieves so successfully in her extraordinary novel Homegoing, spanning an even longer historical trajectory of 300 years.

The novel is presented through dual narratives, in Canada today Marie lives alone with her mother, her father Ba, died in Hong Kong far from them both in circumstances they don’t understand, a kind of double abandonment. The alternate narrative is set in her father’s time, with his extended family during the time of and following China’s Cultural Revolution.

We will come to understand that mystery as the daughter of one of her father’s friends Ai-Ming, comes to stay with them and recognises the calligraphy of her father in a box of books under the kitchen table, the first encounter we have with a manuscript called ‘The Book of Records’ a narrative by an unknown author, one that has been added to and copied and left as a message for various characters who became lost over the years.

The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.

We are taken back to China to the home of Ai Ming’s father who is referred to as Sparrow, a composer at the music conservatory, one of his students Kai and his young cousin Zhuli, whose parents are the first to come under the harsh judgement of Mao’s philosophy, because they were landlords, denounced, beaten, thrown from their homes, accused and sent to labour camps for unsubstantiated crimes. The young daughter is deposited with her Aunt and Uncle miles away in the city, under the protection of her Uncle who works for the regime.

He Luting, Composer (1903 – 1999) China

The story follows these three musicians who are passionate about music (which will become the wrong kind of music) and to survive they must suppress their desires, their passion and compromise, the three of them each make different choices, that will affect those around them.

The narrative around the musicians and some of the characters closely mirrors actual events that occurred in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the main concert hall now renamed He Luting Concert Hall, after the Director who “in 1968, after two years of violence and humiliation, was dragged before television cameras by Red Guards to be threatened and physically abused”

In the following quote, Ai-ming listens to what she learns is her father’s music for the first time, music that was destroyed before it could ever be played, recalled from the recesses of the mind of the composer, after 20 years of silence.

“Ai-ming sat on a chair in the corner as her father played the piano, she had never heard him do so before, had not quite realised he was even capable. His entire body, the way he moved, changed. Most of the pieces she recognised from the records (Bach’s Partita No. 6, Couperin, Shostakovich) but there was another piece, a complex figure that seemed to disassemble as she listened, a rope of music,  a spool of wire. It seemed to rise even as it was falling, to lift in volume even as it diminished, a polyphony so unfathomably beautiful it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. When it stopped tears came abruptly to her eyes.”

This is a tragic novel whose characters spirits are oppressed by a philosophical regime, which mutates into something equally oppressive after the death of Chairman Mao, for a while the younger generation without the memory of the era their parents generation suffered under (and somewhat judging of their inability to challenge the circumstances forced upon them), appear to revolt against the lack of freedom to choose their paths, until they too are brutally crushed in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, ensuring the new generation understand the power and reach of an authoritarian regime, that no-one is immune to.

Madeleine Thien had originally intended to write a novel about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, events she vividly remembered watching unfold on television during her teenage years, however over time she began to ask herself more about what had motivated the one million Beijing citizens to come out onto the streets, especially the older generation.

“What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.” Madeleine Thien, Granta Conversation

Madeleine Thien

This is a must read novel if you wish to reflect on how recent Chinese history affects the present generations, how regimes affect generations of their populations and how even though subsequent generations may not have experienced the past, they continue to feel its effect in their lives today.

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.


Further Reading:

Article by Madeleine Thien: After the Cultural Revolution: what western classical music means in China, The Guardian, 8 July 2016

Madeleine Thien Interview : on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime, ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2016

Conversation with Madeleine Thien: On translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time, Granta Magazine, 3 Oct 2106

Buy a copy of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ here