Madeleine Thien's new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition, even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations - those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-20th century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humor, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.
©2016 Madeleine Thien (P)2016 Recorded Books
At the midpoint of this book, I was more puzzled than impressed. The story begins somewhat disjointed and its cast of characters is difficult to keep track of. However, as the story proceeds into the second half, it comes together, the various threads get unified. The main character in the frame narrative is Marie, who serves as the narrator/investigator trying to piece together a past. But the true story is the story of Sparrow, a gifted composer who is devastated by the Chinese cultural revolution. It weaves together his family's story with that of his brilliant student and friend Kai, who escapes to Canada but does not really escape. The story is somewhat plodding through the details of the cultural revolution, but as it moves inexorably forward toward the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 the story becomes powerful and compelling. There are some remarkable twists in the plot, some beautifully true portraits of characters who live within the constraints that silence them or cause them to bristle.
Because Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli are musicians, the story draws on many musical motifs; sometimes I felt like there was more there than I was grasping. I'd love to hear a musician's response to this book. Also, the book goes through 50 years of Chinese history and I know little of that. But that was not an impediment to understanding the story or feeling its fundamental truth.
Having now read two of the Man-Booker nominees, I can say that this would have been a much better selection than the Sell-out. Indeed, I think the jury sold out. This book is beautifully crafted, subtle in its writing, and addressing important global themes.
I am deeply interested in the history of the failures and horrors of the Cultural Revolution but to write as if the landlords of peasants were angels is absurd. It is a simplistic account and the reader drives me cray with her false voice, so idealized.
I want my money back
please refund my money
This book really stunned me. It will live with me for a long time. I am amazed at Madeleine Thien's storytelling expertise, and the way she wove the history of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath through the stories of the extended family and friends at the novel's core. At times, as an audiobook, I occasionally struggled in my attempts to track the narrative arc, because the narrative shifts back and forth between past and present a lot. But despite that small difficulty, I was awed by the book's mastery; it is gigantic and tender at the same time. I think it's a must-read for everyone, particularly in these post-Trumpian times.
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