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


By Shannon Walker, Martha Steinacker, and Josh Allen, Guest Writers

Keeping it Real…

Well, we have to be honest about his month’s book—it was a tough one! Even as seasoned readers (many with advanced degrees!), members of the book club found it difficult to engage in the reading. In the novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, the author chronicles the impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on one family of Chinese musicians and artists. Through the story, we meet several generations of this family as they navigate hardship in China and the challenges of immigrating to other countries. The book is well written, but jumps back and forth chronologically, which can make it difficult to follow. On the other hand, there are strong and memorable characters, which helps draw the reader in. There are many references to Western composers and musicians. Overall, we feel like readers would benefit from a strong background or interest in classical music or Chinese culture and history. A meaningful element of the novel is the concept of the “Book of Records.” In the story, the Book of Records is a written composition, a story of unknown origin, that is copied, hidden, manipulated and carried along by the characters, inspiring them and giving hope through their many hardships. The Book of Records also connects each generation of the family.


One of our members articulated their thoughts on the book this way:

There was a mystic element to the lives of the characters in this book that kept me reading in spite of the harsh suffering happening in their physical world. It was spiritualism intertwined with their lives as a result of thousands of years of culture. 

In a lyrical way, the story of the Book of Records was copied and added to, then passed from one to many people. It was hidden as a batch of notebooks to keep them safe, or their guardians would be labeled “people who harbor resentments to the Party” and sent to camps for “re-education.” 

References to the music by classical western composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich heightened that sense of spirituality because the music was so revered, lived, and breathed like the Book of Records.

Here is a quote from page 461:

“It was just as Wen the Dreamer said: she could take the names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records, alongside May Fourth and Da-wei. She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.”


Over the years TBC has read a diverse assortment of books—some happy, some sad, some silly, some very serious. Each month we look forward to a lively discussion. Regardless of the content of the book and our own personal feelings, we manage to find meaning and purpose in what we read, and this experience expands our global perspective. Do Not Say We Have Nothing was no different, despite the challenging read.

About the Thunderbird Book Club

The Thunderbird Book Club started in 2007 as a way for faculty, staff, and students to find, read and promote books with international themes and enhance our cross-cultural understanding. We invite you to join us either physically, virtually or in spirit, as we explore new worlds and discover new experiences through the power of storytelling. Monthly meetings happen on the last Wednesday of each month, except for December when we have a book exchange party.

The Thunderbird Book Club can be found on Goodreads and Facebook


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