Monday, 17 July 2017

Guest review by Keren David: FAMILY SECRETS: LIVING WITH SHAME FROM THE VICTORIANS TO THE PRESENT DAY



Keren David is the author of eight novels for Young Adults; she is also Features Editor for the Jewish Chronicle. Her latest book is The Liar's Handbook (Barrington Stoke)


There are some works of non-fiction that help and inspire me when I’m writing one book in particular. For my latest I've been reading books about Canadian life in the 1900s, and very interesting they have proved.

But there are other books which provide enlightenment and underpinning for almost everything I write. Deborah Cohen’s marvellous Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day is most definitely in the latter category and I commend it to any writer whose subject matter involves families, secrets, lies, shame or privacy; that is, very many of us.

Cohen examines areas of family life which have involved secrecy and shame, particularly in the twentieth century and examines social attitudes towards them. Adoption, homosexuality, learning and physical disabilities, race, domestic violence, incest and illegitimacy are all covered, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards secrecy itself, as society moved towards today’s confessional culture. Cohen tells the story of what happens within the family, a change from the usual accounts of social change which focus on protest movements and changes in the law.

To tell those stories she has looked at family letters and diaries, the files of adoption agencies and institutions for the mentally handicapped, the records of marriage counsellors and the divorce court. Just reading about her research (“In Edinburgh, staff had to cut the plastic bands strapped tightly around marriage-counselling files from the 1940s and 1950s before I could begin my research”) gives me a frisson of excitement. The curiosity, that need to know more and understand people better which fuels many a journalist or novelist (I am both), is very well satisfied in this book. It also helps place the current fascination for revealing more and more Love Island-style in a narrative starting in the teeming Victorian tenements where privacy was a luxury that the poor could not afford.

The book starts with a sentence that could come from a novel: “Celia Ward was resourceful and she was desperate.” Celia and her husband wanted to adopt a baby, and in 1920 she felt it had to be as secret as possible. She stayed in a nursing home for a month, pretending to have given birth, and told everyone that the child was her own. If you love watching Long Lost Family, or Who Do You Think You Are? then this book is for you, it puts many such stories in context, leaving enough to the imagination that to read just one chapter provides a writer with a fertile river of ideas to develop.

“There are an infinite number of stories to tell about families, for they are all famously unhappy (and perhaps also happy) in their own ways…” says Cohen, “Writing about the families of the past is an enterprise that necessarily balances the universal and the particular, for the emotions that families call forth (love as well as hate, the warmth of protection and the struggle against dependence) are uncannily familiar - whether considered from the standpoint of legal frameworks, social structures or the brute facts of demography - has often changed utterly.”

Her book made me reflect on my own family’s twentieth century secrets ; the ones I know about anyway, which include one great uncle in a mental asylum, another who was homosexual, and another uncle who disappeared from our lives when I was six, and then reappeared again when I was 14. My husband’s genealogical researches likewise turned up lies about a marriage and a great-aunt who died in a poorhouse. And when I wrote books about adoption and bisexuality, Cohen’s research and insights were invaluable; I can’t recommend it highly enough. And I will be reading it yet again this summer.

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day is published in hardback by Viking, and in paperback by Penguin with the title Family Secrets: The Things we Tried to Hide

Monday, 10 July 2017

A FATAL INVERSION by Barbara Vine, reviewed by Linda Newbery


I'd planned to review something else today, but because of the recent heatwave I'm revisiting, instead, my favourite Barbara Vine novel, which takes place during the exceptionally hot summer of 1976.  

The TV adaptation in 1992, in which the young Jeremy Northam played one of the leads, introduced me to Ruth Rendell as her Barbara Vine alias. The novels written under this pseudonym are notable for their creeping sense of menace, and the way in which ordinary, not particularly ill-intentioned people become involved in terrible events through their circumstances or obsessions. If you start on a Barbara Vine, you'd better have plenty of time at your disposal; she will soon have you thoroughly hooked. Even on a re-reading, knowing the main thrust of the plot and the breathtaking twist at the end, I couldn't put this one down.

Unremitting summer heat contributes to a powerful sense of place and atmosphere. The 'inversion' of the title refers to Ecalpemos - some place in reverse - the name given by Adam, one of the viewpoint characters, to Wyvis Hall, the Suffolk mansion he unexpectedly inherits from a grumpy uncle. Intending just to visit and take stock of the place before heading to Greece for the summer, he and a friend, Rufus, decide to stay there in secret. The slightly shabby mansion, its lake and grounds and woodland, seem cut off from ordinary life; the 'drift', the long avenue leading in from the public road, marks this separation. We experience the place as the young men do, freed from studies and parental expectations, with no one to please but themselves: "He and Rufus, like sultans, had reclined on quilts and smoked hashish, the pungent trails of smoke rising into the dark air and mingling with the scents of the summer night"; and also as Adam views it later, remembering that Shiva, who joins them, called it Eden: "as if a necessary condition of being in this paradise was the commission of some frightful sin or crime that must result in expulsion." 

The novel moves back and forth in time, starting ten years on from that summer. Burying a dead spaniel, the current owners of Wyvis Hall unearth human bones from the pet cemetery in their pine woods; inspection reveals these bones to have belonged to a young woman and a baby. When this gruesome find is reported in the press it unsettles, separately, Adam, Rufus, and Shiva, who have never met or communicated since the day they left in 1976. Each of them, knowing exactly what happened though with varying degrees of involvement, dreads further investigation. Both Adam and Rufus are now well-established professionals, Rufus a gynaecologist, Adam a computer designer; Rufus fears for his reputation, Adam for his marriage and his baby daughter. Approached by police, Adam unwisely denies having lived at Wyvis Hall that summer, a claim that can easily be disproved by a number of locals: the 'coypu man', the dismissed gardener, the post-girl.

Of course we don't at first know who the young woman might be, nor the baby, but possibilities unfurl as the 'commune' Adam needs to finance his hedonistic summer begins to assemble. There are girls; first Mary, Rufus's girlfriend, who soon leaves, then two casual pick-ups, and - the one on whom the plot hinges - Zosie, a childlike but sexily appealing waif brought back by Rufus and seemingly with nowhere else to go. Soon Zosie finds dubious ways of providing cash, and goes from being Rufus' lover to Adam's. The 'commune' is completed by Shiva and Vivien, brought there on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and expecting - Vivien especially - a place of spiritual enlightenment and practical self-sufficiency. Earnest, orderly and principled, seeking the stability missing from her childhood, Vivien soon takes charge of domestic arrangements, becoming a mother figure to Zosie.

As each of the three men reluctantly recalls the events of that hot summer, the tragedy unfolds for the reader with awful inevitability. I had forgotten many of the details from my earlier reading, but appreciated this time how cleverly everything is woven into the whole: the 'coypu man'; Vivien's blue dress; Zosie's small gold ring; Uncle Hilbert's shot-gun; Vivien's background in a care home that's resulted in her love of children and her career as a nanny. The hints and foreshadowings are all there, hidden in plain sight.

What Vine / Rendell does so successfully is to engross the reader in the lives of characters who aren't particularly likeable. Adam is careless of his good fortune, inconsiderate of others and casually racist towards Shiva, remembering him only as 'the Indian' despite sharing the house for several weeks. Rufus, a medical student, is ambitious and arrogant, treating young women as possessions: when Zosie appeals to him to take her side in a crisis, he responds: "I'll tell you whose side I'm on. Rufus's. And that goes for always.' Zosie, vulnerable and dependent, frequently likened to a small, timid animal, is the one whose actions precipitate catastrophe. Even Shiva, anxious for respectability but too keen to win approval, contributes to the mounting disaster; years later he has confided in his wife, but kept this final secret to himself. All three viewpoint characters are tormented by guilt, remorse and the need for self-preservation, in various measures. Not only does Barbara Vine keep you hooked; she makes you feel complicit, caught up in the same tightening mesh as her characters, imagining that you're there in the kitchen on the fateful morning, sharing their dilemma.

Recently, I've read high-profile thrillers that depend on a major plot twist meant to snatch the rug from under the reader's feet. Without exception they have left me feeling dissatisfied, resenting the time I've invested in reading - the cleverness of the twist isn't enough to make up for thin characterisation, implausible motivation or a denouement that falls flat once the revelation has been made. Revisiting this darkly enthralling masterclass has reminded me just how good, how superbly good, Barbara Vine / Ruth Rendell was. That ending, so surprising, so absolutely right ...  well, you'll have to read it for yourself, if you haven't already done so.

I haven't read all the Barbara Vine titles yet, but this one remains at the top of my list, with Asta's Book, The Brimstone Wedding and The Blood Doctor as runners-up. If you're a fan too, which is your favourite, and why? 

A Fatal Inversion is published by Penguin.

This is an adapted version of a review which first appeared on my website blog, Between the Pages.



Monday, 3 July 2017

THE LIE OF THE LAND by Amanda Craig, reviewed by Adèle Geras




After I finished reading this book, words to describe it were tumbling about in my mind.  Here are some of them: abundant, generous, overflowing, detailed, knowledgeable, thrilling, melodramatic, involving, gripping, modern, topical, controversial, political...

But in the end I decided on one word which sums up exactly what this book is. It's VICTORIAN. In the best possible sense, which is to say it's both a page- turner and a primer; a novel full of stuff happening, people getting into every variety of turmoil, and events in the Body Politic informing everything. It takes time over detail, and tells you about things which other books leave out. It's concerned with incomes and the results of the Referendum vote on Brexit but also with feelings between people and describes both with great sensitivity and enormous brio. You come away from it not only knowing about such things as conditions in a Devon pie factory for its workers both foreign  and British, but also having in your mind's eye a beautiful landscape, as well as intimate knowledge of several houses. The book is a cornucopia...that's another word that occurred to me several times while I was reading it.

It starts, perfectly, with a summing- up of the whole subject of the novel in one sentence. Again, this nods to the Victorians and also of course, to Jane Austen: "There is no money and the Bredins can't afford to divorce."

From this situation, which you know straight away, many paths and narrative strands flow towards a very satisfying ending. That's also Victorian. They were not given to ambiguity, or post-modern 'choose your own outcome' stuff.  So you know that, to all intents and purposes, the good will end happily and the bad unhappily. That, as Oscar Wilde said, is what fiction means.

But along the way your heart will be in your mouth for several of the characters. There's an unsolved murder. There are issues of every sort, from housing problems to farming subsidies, to the care of the elderly and the dreadful pain of infertility. There's neglect and love and horror and comparisons of life in London with Dorset life. There's friction between fathers and sons, and stepsons too. There's a glamorous grandmother. A rock star. A slightly spooky teenager who's also a gifted pianist. A Health Visitor, who's the wife of a sheep farmer...and so on. 

At the centre are Quentin and Lottie. He's a journalist, a bit down on his luck now and she's an architect who, like her unfaithful husband, isn't a bit keen on the idea of leaving her work and decamping to the country. Their two girls are young enough to attend the village school, and Lottie's son by another man, Xan, about to apply to university. He's the one who works in Humble's Pie factory. (That pun, too, is worthy of Dickens himself!) Close by are living Quentin's parents. Hugh is a dying poet with a couple of poems that are studied on the syllabus but not much else to show for his writing life...he reckons he's past it. Naomi is a saint, caring for Hugh. 

I could go on. The book teems with characters (Victorian, again.) Some are up to no good. There's been a murder at the cottage where Quentin and Lottie settle...the murderer is still at large. The head was missing from the body when it was found.....need I say more? If you want melodrama, look no further!

I didn't say that it's brilliantly written, but it is. It's the sort of book which you want to go back to, once you've raced through it, so that you can linger over details. It would make the perfect holiday read.

I must add my usual disclaimer: I know the author, but I would not have rushed to review this novel if I didn't genuinely love it. You'll have to trust me on that.

I'm pretty sure that anyone who picks up this book will find it hard to put down, even though (Victorian!) it's quite heavy. A Kindle edition would solve this problem but do buy it in whatever format suits you best. You will not regret it.   

The Lie of the Land is published in hardback by Little, Brown.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Guest review by Graeme Fife: IN PARENTHESIS by David Jones





Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history, four studies of the mountain ranges of southern Europe and, like many of us, waits with the patience of Job for decision on a number of manuscripts.

In Parenthesis grew out of the seven months between December 1915 and the Battle of the Somme. Its seven parts trace the journey of a unit of the Royal Welch Fusiliers with whom Jones served from embarkation to France and the grim fighting in Mametz Wood. However, although rooted in the experience of an individual soldier, John Ball, and his fellow privates, it concerns itself more with the minutiae of their life than with the horror of their death. Indeed, Jones said that although ‘it happens to be concerned with war, I should prefer it to be about a good kind of peace,’ in part, thereby, explaining the title of the work, the war itself being a sort of brackets within which they existed and out of which they were glad to step.

The style of this essentially poetic work is complex but not baffling, even if the literary cross references, the passages of demotic language, the peppering with slang, the evocation of particularly Welsh myth, in the epic poem Y Gododdin, and Arthurian legend, call for author’s notes, much in the way they were deployed by T.S. Eliot.
  
I have never read so moving and richly coloured an evocation of the sounds and perpetuum mobile of life in the trenches, the constant nag of military orders, discipline, parades, longueurs of the army routine. And the cheery and scabrous joshing of the men subject to it. I’ve read nothing more immediate, chaotic, provoking. By scattered image, staccato interjection, wild allusion, literary reference, word painting, it startles and surprises constantly. Of course I miss much – to slow my reading to the pace of chasing each conundrum would be to lose the pace of the narrative’s onward push, the relentless current, but the impression sticks. And the impression, of men drawn into a plight which mirrors, somehow, in extremis, the human condition in any circumstance, is of deep humanity and what Jones called ‘the extreme tenderness of men in action to each other’. This is something rather more than camaraderie, though such is obvious, largely in the humorous banter with which the text is sprinkled. Of a wounded comrade-in-arms: ‘Nothing is impossible nowadays my dear if only we can get the poor bleeder through the barrage and they take as much trouble with the ordinary soldiers you know…Lift gently Dai, gentleness befits his gun-shot wound…go easy – easee at the slope – and mind him…’

These men, drawn from worlds apart, from Wales to Bromley-by-Bow, have their counterparts in the misted past of ancient battles fought in these islands for whom the elegies of the ancient Welsh poems were written. They have their shades in the Arthurian knights, and in that continuum of human courage, of suffering, of simply making do, they unite the theme of compassion: the sacrificial lamb, the goat cast into the wilderness to bear the burden of guilt, the vast multitude of the men along the Western Front who ‘lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke…’ that play on the two senses of Jerry underlining the pity of this conflict.

I’d liken the language and the eccentric pointing of its punctuation, rich in its shifts of tone – jocular and even scurrilous here, exalted here, matter of fact here, a sudden descant of military terms and indicators, numbers and letters, largely incomprehensible without the maps but curiously comic – to a symphonic score. The language of music is not generally susceptible to explanation, not logical, but it has a suggestive power which Jones echoes in his blending of elements of a voice which speaks direct as well as in passionate digression and ornament:

‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’

But: ‘…who gives a bugger for the Dolorous Stroke.’ This last an allusion to the wound inflicted on the guardian of the Holy Grail by a mystic weapon, counterpart to the spear which despatches Christ on the Cross.

This is a world where mundane details of a sort of substratum of mortal existence plays out, subject to the rules and regulations of the army, often needless, meaningless, plain daft – ‘groundsheet not to protrude under pack more than two inches’ – but where, nevertheless, an innate nobility holds, a nobility which extends beyond the imperatives of this sordid business of waiting in water-filled trenches to visit death upon those who wait to visit death on you.

‘The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? – bugger all to report? – kipping mate? – Christ, mate – you’ll have them all over.’

In Parenthesis is published by Faber & Faber.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Guest review by Julia Jarman: THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE by Hannah Rothschild



Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

Don’t let the first dozen or so pages put you off.

Attracted by the blurb I started reading this novel on a long flight from China. I needed something to keep me awake and looked forward to a light-hearted read in which I learned something about art and the art world.  The prologue, detailing preparations for the sale of a famous picture by Watteau at an illustrious London auction house, was entertaining at first but began to grate. Did I need to know every prospective purchaser and all the members of staff assigned to mind them? It didn’t help that the character through whose desperate eyes we see this line-up is an unattractive oh-so sorry-for-himself penniless Old Etonian, who is in charge of the sale; records must be broken if he is to collect his bonus and restore the family fortunes. Did I sympathise? Hmmm. The chapter ends with a hook hinting at skulduggery to come, which kept me turning the pages. Clearly this auction will not go to plan . . .
                             
Flashback. (Sorry, Colm Toibin, this plot flash, bangs and wallops from Skulduggery Past to Skulduggery Even Further Past and Skulduggery Long Before that, before it gets back to the auction.) In chapter one things look up when we meet chef Annie McDee, thirty-one and broken-hearted, but gamely trying to rebuild her life in London.  Looking for a present for her new boyfriend she comes across an old picture in a junk shop, likes the look of it and buys it.  It is of course THE picture, The Improbability of Love, and the find sets in motion a mostly fast-moving, rollicking tale with more ups and downs and twists and turns than my wonky spiraliser.  

Write about what you know, we’re told, and author Hannah Rothschild knows lots. Part of the fabulously rich Rothschild family, she grew up immersed in fine art and old rich. She went on to study art and made her career in art and the media, which brought her into contact with the new-rich: Russian oligarchs, hedge fund buyers and pop-star billionaires. She has facts at her finger tips that would take most of us years to research and her accomplishments are prodigious. Acclaimed as a hard worker, she has written biography, art criticism, film scripts and documentaries, as well as serving on the board of various art galleries. In this her first novel she writes assuredly, effortlessly it seems - I do mean seems - and evidently enjoys the freedom fiction gives to imagine and invent.

Flashback 2: the talking picture. This for me is her most delightful invention. The picture, The Improbability of Love, is a character in the novel speaking to the reader directly. I love this personification of the conceit that pictures ‘speak to us’, or not of course. The picture speaks to Annie in the metaphorical way which is why she buys it, and that distinguishes her from most of the potential purchasers.  I hear a female voice, by the way, possibly because of the Miss Piggy-ish way she refers to herself as ‘moi’.  I loved the way she described her life going back to Watteau’s first inspired brushstrokes, with detailed portraits of her various owners, some of them very nasty characters indeed. 

The story has a dark side and gives the reader plenty to think about.  It raises the question: what is Art and what is it for?  In the book as in life for some characters it’s merely currency, for others status and for an increasing number it’s a substitute for religion. Next time I go to a gallery I’ll ask myself ‘Why?’

I should perhaps say this is a much commented-on book, well aired on the media and short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  A lot of people love it, but not a friend of mine who knows a lot more about art and the art scene than me.  She says - shock horror - there are mistakes. ‘And did you know there’s no such picture as The Improbability of Love?’

I’m still thinking about that.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Our tribute to Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017



Celia Rees: Helen Dunmore was one of those writers who could do everything, seemingly effortlessly. As well as her prize-winning adult fiction, she wrote for children and young adults and she wrote poetry. It seems wrong to be writing about her in the past tense. She was the kind of writer you thought would always be there to show the rest of us how it is done.


I remember sitting opposite her at a jolly Hay Festival dinner hosted by Scholastic.  I confess to being more than a little star struck but she was as charming as she was beautiful. Her fame was immaterial.  She joined in happily with the table talk and laughter, all writers together.  We will all miss her. I can’t believe she’s gone. 


Linda Newbery: I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 

She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. In The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. 
Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she 
wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival. 

Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: "The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm."

I'm glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven't yet read. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.


Adèle Geras: I can't remember the year exactly, but it was in the early 1980s. I'd just started to write poems again. I'd not written any since leaving school in 1963. I entered a competition run by the Lancaster Festival and judged by Ian McMillan. Lancaster had a very kind way of awarding prize winners: all the poems the judge liked were published together in a pamphlet and the poets were invited to Lancaster for a reading.

Some of us went out to an Italian restaurant afterwards, and I can't account for why, but Helen Dunmore was at that meal and I was sitting opposite her at the table. Years later, when I started reading her novels with enormous pleasure, I would think back to that lunch and my memories of what she was like. Trivial as it may sound when you consider her gifts as a poet and novelist, my abiding memory is of her beauty. Photos don't do justice to it. I would say: radiant, but that sounds trite. Trite but true.

The last book I read by her was Exposure, which I really loved and couldn't put down. I read what she wrote as she published what she knew was to be her last book, and the grace and bravery of her words was some consolation in the face of the tragic news she was conveying. I defy anyone to read her final poem without weeping.

Helen Dunmore died much too young. But we have her books and they abide.

What are your memories of Helen Dunmore? Or your favourites of her novels, stories and poems? Do please add your comments as part of this tribute to an exceptional and much-loved writer. 
Thank you!


Monday, 5 June 2017

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien, reviewed by Linda Newbery


Three weeks ago we featured Sheena Wilkinson's review of The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant, which is currently shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Here's another strong contender.  

Like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago or Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Madeleine Thien's novel takes the reader through a harrowing time of political upheaval in which individuals struggle to keep any sense of purpose and integrity. The story here revolves around three exceptional musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music: Sparrow, his young cousin Zhuli, and a pianist, Jiang Kai. The novel opens in Canada with the first-person narrative of Jiang Kai’s daughter, Li-ling or Marie, from whom we learn that her father killed himself in 1989. 

The circumstances of this are slowly revealed, taking us back, through three generations of linked characters, to communist China under Chairman Mao, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the rule of Deng Xiaoping – leading, with a sense of inevitability, to the Tiananmen Square protests. This sounds grim, even daunting, but we approach obliquely through various intertwining stories, linked by music, especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations and by Sparrow’s own composition, and by chapters from a fragmented book, part fiction, part reality, which is copied, preserved, and passed from one character to another. These writings first appears in notebooks given by Wen the Dreamer to his future wife Swirl: “As her candle flickered, she became certain that the writer had gone into exile or perhaps met with some tragedy”. Or maybe “the names were part of a code, a trail that someone could follow.” As readers, following this trail back and forth through the generations, we begin to see patterns: love and loss, loyalty and rebellion, exile and survival, music and silence.  

Both writing and composing were of course highly dangerous in a culture in which nothing could be private, and where attitudes, tastes and even thoughts were expected to conform to narrow party lines. Sparrow’s own Symphony No.2, “which he knew to be a work of great beauty, languished in his desk drawer, having never even been submitted for approval … His students wanted revolutionary accessibility and his superiors tried to educate him on the correct political line, but what line could this be? As soon as he contained it in his hands, it opened its wings and filled the sky.” Western music, especially, is seen as bourgeois and contaminating, and soon Zhuli, a violin student devoted to Bach and Prokofiev, is targeted, denounced and assaulted by zealous Red Guards. Tellingly, Sparrow gives up his music to work in a factory making radios: radios which blast out Party propaganda from every open window. He feels that “the weakness of his time had lodged inside him, slowly pulverising all that was unique and his alone, because he had allowed it to do so.” Even to love is to risk Party disapproval: “Love, if it served the smaller self before the greater one, the individual before the People, was a betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of love itself.”

In spite of the weighty and tragic events recounted, there’s often a beguiling innocence to the writing, as in this charming glimpse. “Swirl heard an infant weeping, went to the window and when she looked down, she saw a couple trying to fit their baby into his winter coat, adjusting arms then legs then head as the baby lolled and weakly fought, then scrunched up his face and wailed, and still the outerwear refused to fasten. Wen the Dreamer came along the avenue, a block of pages sticking out of his pocket. He leaned towards the weeping child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing, the outerwear was fastened, and the little family went on their tremulous way.”  

The story is framed by the arrival in Vancouver of Ai-ming, Sparrow’s daughter, who has fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Marie and Ai-ming form a close bond echoing that of their fathers; but Ai-ming, attempting to take up residency in the United States, disappears again, mourned by Marie. “Long after she departed, Ai-ming’s voice tugged away at my thoughts, returning me again and again to the same ever-expanding, ever-contracting piece of music … It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realise that days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.” The Book of Records is fragmented and unfinished, but copied and disseminated. Sparrow’s music is concealed but eventually rescued, recorded and distributed. Marie / Li Ling continues to piece together her past and that of her family. In this way the characters, their dreams and aspirations, live on.

Reaching the end of this memorable and rewarding novel, I felt that I needed to start again at the beginning, and in retrospect I should have made notes, to understand more quickly how the characters are connected. (A friend to whom I passed on the book also stopped halfway to start again, for clarity - it does demand some initial effort from the reader). As I was about to leave for two weeks in China, it sent me back to Wild Swans, which covers the same period in memoir form and kept me absorbed throughout my trip. I learned that although Wild Swans is translated into 38 languages it is still banned in China; that most Chinese people are unaware of the events in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989, and that Madeleine Thien has been told that her novel can be published there only if the chapters about the protests are removed - reminders that China, though embracing Western influences in many ways, is still under tight control. 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta.