This is the second of three posts spiralling around the notes made while reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Each with ten parts. Thirty segments. As though my post is the aria and the thirty segments are the variations. In recognition of the importance which Bach’s Goldberg Variations holds in relationship to the novel.

Although Madeleine Thien has expressed this idea in several interviews, the “Canadian Notes and Queries” piece, an interview conducted by Brad de Roo, is particularly striking.

Here, she comments on the state of quiet: “The qu is sometimes not having the words, or having the words taken from you, for instance in a political climate when words begin to mean their opposite. I think listening is a state of being. You have to listen to know when you can add your voice to the fabric of sound and be heard.”

Asked whether a novel is like a conversation, she replies: “Not every novel will work for every person, of course, but sometimes there’s a real chemistry. As a reader, I often feel I’m meeting another mind, and it’s exciting.”

Here are some of the points where the novel met my reader’s mind most memorably. On the question of language and words. Sometimes an overt mingling with the idea of expression. Sometimes the expression itself.


“Kai still said nothing. He reminded her of a cat with one paw raised, about to touch the ground, momentarily confused.”


“Would I still be the same person if I woke up in a different language and another existence?”


thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“She was as graceful and beautiful as a written word, but any word could be so easily erased.”


“What mattered was the here and now and not the life before, what mattered were the changeable things of today and tomorrow and not the ever, infinitely, unbearably unchanging yesterday.”


“Across the courtyard, I saw a miserable Christmas tree. It looked like someone had tried to strangle it with tinsel.”


“Her long braid touched the small of her back, a pressure like her mother’s hand guiding her through the invisible, ever-watching crowds.”


There were days in my life, he thought, that I passed over as though they were nothing and there are moments, seconds, when everything comes into focus.”


“How could a lie continue so long, and work its way into everything they touched?”


“It must have rained not long ago. The air felt renewed, the dawn light was the colour of pearls, unreal against the pavement.”


“Mathematics has taught me that a small thing can become a large thing very quickly, and also that a small thing never entirely disappears. Or, to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing might be a small book – one of a couple hundred in my stacks in last year’s reading – but it became a large thing very quickly.

Note: The first variation appeared here. The third variation will appear tomorrow.