Madeleine Thien has written a memorable book about a very difficult time in Chinese history and how it affected families and their descendants. It was shortlisted last year for the Mann Booker Prize.
The author has chosen to tell the story of how the Cultural Revolution affected a brilliant community of classical musicians living and studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Thien does this through memories of three periods of time: during the period of Mao's ascendency; the Tiananmen Square massacre; and the present.
The novel opens in 1986 in Vancouver, Canada where Li-ling, a mathematically talented 10 year old, lives with her mother after her father, Kai, a gifted pianist, mysteriously disappeared. A young woman, Ai-ming, arrives on their doorstep after escaping from China. She and her family had been among the Tiananmen Square protesters. Her father, Sparrow, a famous composer, had been best friends with Kai. Ai-ming brings with her a set of notebooks of radical writing, together known as The Book of Records. These forbidden notebooks had been copied by many different hands down through the years; possession could lead to death. They are important to the progression of the novel and appear again and again throughout the story.
With Li-ling and Ai-ming as our narrators, we learn the connection between their fathers and how their lives were intwined. They were best friends, who along with an idealistic young violinist named Zhuli, took different paths trying to survive and save their art in Mao's China. Music and Sparrow's unfinished Symphony #3 play major roles in the plot of the story. Eventually it all falls into place when the adult Li-ling returns to modern day China to better understand her family's roots.
This is a wonderful book full of interesting and fully drawn characters whose lives help us better understand the plight of artists in the dark hours of China's history. I highly recommend it to all readers and music lovers and reading groups. Madeleine Thien is a gifted writer and the story remains with the reader long after the final page is turned.