This book by Madeleine Thien is one that I picked up a couple years ago when I was rage-buying books by people of color after the election. I wasn’t sure what it was about, but it was on my radar and then it caught my eye when I was wandering through a book store so I went ahead and bought it.
It then languished on my shelf with so many other books until I nominated it for my book club and enough people voted on it that we got to discuss it, thereby forcing me to read it before the date of discussion. Thank goodness for all that because it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
I’m not even sure how to tell you what it’s about. It starts off with Marie (a.k.a. Li-ling), a the Canadian-born daughter of a Chinese man, Jiang Kai, who was once a renowned concert pianist in China. Marie is the narrator of the story (mostly) and the book starts with her talking about how her father left her and her mother to move back to China, only to commit suicide a few months later. A few months after that, her mother gets a phone call asking for help for the daughter of one of Jiang Kai’s very close friends in China. She’s in danger in China and they’re hoping to send her west to be safe. Marie’s mother agrees, and even though they’re poor and don’t have much to go around, they agree to help out this girl, who’s also named Li-ling, but she goes by Ai-ming.
Between Ba’s death and the arrival of Ai-ming, Marie’s mother had found some papers of Ba’s that she thinks is a novel about an explorer named Da-Wei who has a bunch of adventures. When Ai-ming shows up, she finds the story and starts reading it, then starts telling Marie the story of their fathers and how they came to be friends. But after a few chapters Ai-ming decides to move to the U.S. to try her chances there, so Marie finishes telling the story to us (the reader) without Ai-ming’s help.
It’s a little confusing because the story actually starts with Ai-ming’s father’s parents and how they survived WWII and China’s first Civil War. Then we meet her father, Sparrow, as a young boy, and it isn’t until significantly later that we meet Kai. In the mean time, we learn all about Sparrow’s ambition to become a great composer and his sister’s love of playing violin. By the time Kai finally shows up, he sneaks in there so subtly that I had almost forgotten he was the father of the book’s narrator.
Kai and Sparrow become very close – as in, “inappropriately close.” There are definitely some homosexual over tones here, but of course they both know they can’t pursue them, so Sparrow goes on to marry a woman and Kai pursues his musical career.
Through all the political upheavals that China suffers through, Kai manages better than Sparrow. For the most part, he manages to end up on the winning side, at least at first, while Sparrow’s belongings are confiscated and he is intimidated into giving up composing music, even after Kai tries to use his influence to get Sparrow a position as a patriotic composer (which would mean no creative freedom whatsoever, so Sparrow declines, despite the fact that it means living in poverty and misery with his family for the rest of his days).
Kai eventually moves to Canada, marries and starts a family, but we never get to see any of the details of how he managed that, which kind of disappointed me. I wanted to know more about Marie’s mother and how she met Kai and how he wooed her into marriage.
But the story really focuses on Sparrow. As a student, his daughter becomes something of an activist and both she and her father take part in the protests in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which were violently put down by the government (I was 2 years old at the time and ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about this major event). Sparrow doesn’t make it out of that mess alive, although his daughter does. Kai had come back to China to visit Sparrow and hopefully convince him to move to Canada with him, but when he realizes Sparrow is dead, Kai commits suicide.
At some point, as an adult, Marie visits China and actually makes it to the apartment where her father allegedly hung himself (she appears to feel some doubt as to whether it was really a suicide, and given the way the Chinese government operates, I suppose that’s fair).
Because all the characters of this book love music it plays a very prominent role in the book. It starts off with descriptions of the written language of music (there are apparently more than one), the motions of a conductor conducting in 4/4 time, and the merits of some of the greatest classical composers, particularly Bach. My guess would be that Thien loves Bach, because all her characters do and they have lots of long conversations about what makes him so great. That’s too bad for me because I’ve always just been bored by his music.
Other than that, I was totally on board with this book and the theme of music that plays throughout. The last chapter is even called “Coda,” which in music means to go back to the beginning. It’s about how Ai-ming escaped from China after having participated in the Tiananmen Square protests and how she makes her way to Canada.
The whole book is just so beautifully written. I can’t recommend it enough, although it is awfully depressing, so consider yourself warned.
What did you read this week? Any other new favorites I should check out?