There is a light, delicate cadence to Thien’s novel which reflects the musical theme which sits at the heart of the novel; the novel covers several generations of a Chinese family as they deal with the repercussions of the Chinese revolution, the ripples of which have an all-consuming impact on the characters and their lives, from the start of the revolution to Tiananmen, from Shanghai to Vancouver, from peasant China to the sky-scraper filled sky of modern Shanghai, the impact of the revolution is the axis on which the wheel of the novel turns.
The narrator of the novel, Li-ling, chooses explore her family’s past following a visit from a refugee fleeing China named Ai-ming. Via her interactions with Ai-Ming she begins to discover the toxic history of the cultural revolution in China, from the incipient days of hope, the its slow yet inexorable march to tyranny. The counterpoint to the oppression of the Chinese government is art. Art represents everything which the parochial politics of the Chinese government does not as it explores what makes is unique and different rather than enforcing homogeneity and whose worth is intangible and measured by beauty and who spirituality echoes the richness of Chinese culture, history and religion which the revolution was so bent on destroying.
Whether it is the love of literature displayed by Wen the Dreamer, whose Book of Records forms the basis for much of the novel, or the love of classical music of Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai in the Shanghai Conservatory, Thien explores the pervasiveness of music across all our lives, with its scarce-noted ubiquity counter-acting the heavy-handed dominance of the revolution;
“He’d been thinking about the daylight, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes. If one needed darkness to see the heavens, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also a form of deafness? If so, what was silence.”
As the characters bathe in Beethoven and Bach they begin to find a deeper meaning in life, a sense of joy and individuality which is bound to be crushed by the revolution. Indeed the vast majority of the novel explores the crushing of these hopes and the folding-up of the fantasies which keep the characters going despite the horror of the world around them, from the lie why Wen the Dreamer and Swirl are told about their daughter Zhuli escaping China when she in fact committed suicide, to the ennui which takes over Ai-Ming as she finds her hopes of escaping China receding leading to her wanting to escape into nothingness.
However, despite all this, the image the novel closes on is one of hope, one where although the characters are unable to escape wholly from their pasts, they are at least able to consider working towards a new future.