Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016): Third Variation

This is the third 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 observes the relationship between books and writers and readers: “I think every book about China (or any place, really) reveals both China and the writer. So much of narrative is about distance, intimacy, who we think we’re speaking to (or not speaking to), how we imagine ourselves in relation to another.”

Madeleine Thien interviewed by Brad de Roo

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 books and writing, records and stories.


“’You understand, don’t you?” she said. ‘The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.’ Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. I recognized it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.”


“Surely another story could serve the same purpose, and lift her out of her solitude. She lost herself in travel books about Paris and New York, imagining a journey that would bring her to the far west.”


thien-do-not-say-we-have-nothing“After all, the Book of Records was just a distraction from the realities of modern life. It was only a book, so why couldn’t she let it go? She opened her trunk and saw objects from her past, a vanished time and a former self.”


“The Professor read aloud from the most battered book Sparrow had ever seen. The book turned out to be a play….”


“How the city mesmerized me. Shanghai seemed, like a library or even a single book, to hold a universe within itself.”


“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”


“It is a simple thing to write a book. Simpler, too, when the book already exists, and has been passed from person to person, in different versions, permutations and variations. No one person can tell a story this large, and there are, of course, missing chapters in my own Book of Records.”


“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”


“Sometimes Ai-ming cried for no reason, even when the story was a happy one. Sometimes, when the story was sad, she felt nothing, not even the beating of her own heart.”


“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.”

Books like Do Not Say We Have Nothing do live on. As dangerous as a revolutionary.

Note: The first and second variations appeared here and here.



  1. […] Short-listed this year are Ayöbámi Adébáö’s Stay With Me, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle, C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. […]

  2. […] Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing […]

  3. Stefanie January 18, 2017 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    More than anything else I have read about this book, your series makes me want to really read it! thanks!

  4. Naomi January 15, 2017 at 7:57 am - Reply

    The thread of the novel about the Book of Records was intriguing. I loved how she used it even at the very end, despite all the changes in technology.
    The storyline of Wen the Dreamer and Sparrow’s Aunt was so sad, though.

    • Buried In Print January 17, 2017 at 3:10 pm - Reply

      I felt that I had to wait until the right time to read this one because I was expecting a certain kind of sadness…and it was there, as expected. But there are so many other feelings in the novel as well. It’s the combination which makes it so wonderful, I think.

      • Naomi January 17, 2017 at 9:22 pm - Reply

        No, the sadness isn’t overwhelming.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings January 15, 2017 at 6:03 am - Reply

    I *have* enjoyed reading your posts on Thien – and the novel is very highly recommended all round, I see.

    • Buried In Print January 17, 2017 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Karen. It’s found a lot of readers: not all good books are so lucky, but I’m so pleased that this one has touched so many!

  6. Booker talk January 15, 2017 at 5:05 am - Reply

    this again shows just how many ideas Thien wove into the novel

    • Buried In Print January 17, 2017 at 3:08 pm - Reply

      It’s such a rich and powerful story; I’m glad it found a place in your reading project too!

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