This book has made the shortlists of the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction; it has also been nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. I certainly understand why it keeps being mentioned as award-worthy.
This is a complex, non-linear multi-generational saga. The narrator is Li-ling (Marie) living in present-day Vancouver. Marie’s father committed suicide over a quarter of a century earlier. This trauma and other events challenge her to piece together her family history. Being fluent only in English, language is an obstacle but so is silence, the unwillingness of people to speak openly.
Gradually, the life stories of three main characters are revealed – those of Kai, Marie’s father who is a gifted concert pianist; Sparrow, a composer and Kai’s friend; and Zhuli, a talented violinist who is Sparrow’s cousin. These three study at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the start of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They live for and by music, but the political climate deems classical Western music a bourgeois value, and playing such music is considered counter-revolutionary behaviour worthy of persecution. Zhuli describes their conflict: “’I never stopped loving my country but I wanted to be loyal to something else, too’” (260). Their struggles (and those of various family members) to survive the political upheavals of 20th-century China from Mao’s ascent to the Tiananmen Square protests are the focus of this dense novel.
The novel shows how people suffer under a cruel, repressive regime which requires people to sacrifice personal aspirations in the service of the shifting needs of the regime’s politics. “’People lost one another. You could be sent five thousand kilometres away, with no hope of coming back. Everyone had so many people like this in their lives, people who had been sent away. . . . People simply didn’t have the right to live where they wanted, to love who they wanted, to do the work they wanted. Everything was decided by the Party’” (417). One man says, “’this country exists in fear’” and comments on how “’it is hard to live with so little certainty’” (180) when virtually no one can be trusted and when humiliation, state-sanctioned violence, years in a labour camp, and even death await anyone suspected of being a traitor to the state. Even the actions of one’s parents could be used against someone. How can people thrive when the course of their lives is decided without regard to their personal desires?
There are many characters in this novel, but there is not the confusion one might expect. Each is clearly differentiated. This is particularly the case with the characterizations of Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli. Each has a distinct personality and different motivations for choices, and each reacts very differently to the manipulation of his/her life by the state.
Thien obviously did extensive research. I found myself wishing I had more than a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese history and classical music. In fact, I had hesitated to read the book because its subject matter seemed daunting. Admittedly, I did find myself doing some research into major events in modern China to add to my understanding, but that research was not a necessity since Thien provides sufficient information.
I found myself appreciating the fact that I had earlier read Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a fictionalized account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, under Stalinism. Like Thien’s book, it examines how/if an artist can follow his personal vision in a totalitarian society. Just as Barnes’ novel inspired me to explore Shostakovich’s music, Thien’s inspired me to play Glenn Gould’s Bach: The Goldberg Variations which is repeatedly mentioned.
The reader should be aware that sadness is the prevailing emotion throughout. To have to bury one’s dreams and to be forced to resort to silence goes against all my ideas of freedom and happiness. There are only ruinous effects. A comment by Seiji Ozawa, a Japanese conductor, struck me as overwhelmingly sad; Kai says, “’When Ozawa came [to China after the end of the Cultural Revolution], he said our ability to interpret the music had fundamentally changed . . . As if an entire emotional range was lost to us, but we ourselves couldn’t hear it. Every musician in the orchestra knew they’d been cheated. But until that moment, we never had to face it so directly’” (311).
This novel is often a harrowing read, but it is ever so powerful. Its emotional impression lingers. At one point Zhuli says, “’The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book’” (280). Even after you close this book, it will stay with you. The book is like a masterful piece of music that continues to move you even after there is only silence.