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.