Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao's ascent to the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989.
It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, in which three musicians - the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow; the violin prodigy, Zhuli; and the enigmatic pianist, Kai - struggle during China's relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.
"Full of wisdom and complexity, comedy and beauty, Thien has delivered a novel that is both hugely political and severe, but at the same time delicate and intimate." (Kate Whiting, Herald)
"A magnificent epic of Chinese history, richly detailed and beautifully written." (Kate Saunders,The Times)
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Moving and thought-provoking story.
An Epic Tale of the Cultural Revolution in China
I absolutely loved this book. It is an epic, sweeping tale of what it takes to preserve your sense of self, family loyalty, talents and treasured memories in the face of a cruel, insensitive, tyrannic ideology which demands subservience and the individual repression of personality and ambition for the good of Society. This novel traces the lives of three talented musicians and their families through the excesses and horrors of the Cultural Revolution, from its inception up until the political upheaval of the student demonstrations of 1989 in Tianenman Square. The story is set in China, Hong Kong and Canada and the difficulties of adjusting to life as an immigrant in a democratic society counterpointed with the experience of returning to your repressed, judgemental homeland are skillfully portrayed. The concepts of protest, challenging authority, taking personal risks, creativity and political dissent are also explored in a number of ways.
The novel is cleverly plotted, gradually revealing details (in a non-linear fashion which keeps the reader hooked) of the events which shape the destinies of the central characters. The cruelties and humiliations that many of the characters have to face are truly shocking, as is the fallout of events and actions which some of the characters are faced with. Communist China does not fare very well in this novelist's version of life under Chairman Mao and his successors.
Music and musicianship are at the centre of the story as is the notion of what is 'good' music and what is 'bad' music; what music is acceptable in Society and what is not. The music of Bach, particularly The Goldman Variations as played by Glenn Gould, is a recurring motif in the story.
The narration is excellent, well-paced and very sympathetic to the tone of the story.
I heartily recommend this book. It broke my heart in so many ways but left me positively glad for the ability people have to endure in the face of ghastly circumstances. Humanity and decency can triumph over tyranny and this, I believe, is the message which is central to a wonderful story.
Sit back and enjoy! A book for a long car journey or something similar, where you can concentrate and let yourself get lost in this very interesting period of history.