In Madeleine Thien’s masterful new work, she takes us inside two talented families of musicians in China and the lives of two entwined generations — those who weathered Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and their children who because the 1989 Tiananmen Square protesters during one of the most important political moments of the past century. In her strong, subtle, witty and morally complex style, Thien has crafted characters that leap off the page, by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.
The story opens in Vancouver in 1990, as ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: Ai-ming, a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. Gradually, as Ai-ming befriends Marie, she relates the history of her family, from the crowded teahouse during Mao’s ascent to the creative ferment inside the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s to the streets of Beijing during the 1989 demonstrations.
The prose in this book is powerful and inspiring. Thien immerses the reader in the whirling lives of three musicians who traverse these times. The three musicians are the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the ambitious pianist Kai. The three struggle musicians struggle to remain loyal to one another and to the music the defines them, but eventually the relentless tide of the Cultural Revolution forces them to re-imagine their bonds and their fates, with unexpected and lasting consequences.
This is a powerful read, and it a book that musical lovers will love as well as readers who are interested in the lives of musicians. The story is also seeped in history and a lot of background from Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by: Irene S. Roth