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    A journey through different places and times. in parts spellbinding. A book to be read more than once.

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  • The Personal enfolds the Political - and Vice versa

    Set largely in the tumultuous times of China from the end of WWII, Thiensville uses the intertwined lives of several generations to take an unflinching look at political movements in China - and how love and hope privately co-exist with horror and separation. It's both emotionally engaging and so so clever in the way she uses the metaphor of musical theme and variations, and in the many-fold copying of chapters of the Book of Records with coded variations. That way, as Thiensville says, and her writing attests, 'not everything will pass '.

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  • How an indomitable human spirit triumphs

    When there is that delicious tension between not wanting a novel to end but being swept along with its inevitable flow, I am certain that I am reading one of the best books of recent years. Madeleine Thien is a Canadian, a daughter of Malaysian Chinese immigrants has reached into the recent turbulent history of China to create this epic of family stories that explore that culture through the intensely personal experiences of musicians. While leading me through those terrible events of destruction and humiliation in the Cultural Revolution and the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Thien places her focus on the inner lives of her characters as they struggle to survive. She uses their love of music to signify their torment and their joy. The works she chose, those of Bach, especially a violin sonata and the Goldberg Variations for piano featuring Yehudi Menuhin and Glenn Gould, represent the values of these celebrated masters of Western culture and humanity while the music of Shostakovich represents the indomitable human spirit that surpasses mere survival. Sparrow only ever wanted to play the piano and compose music, inspired by these masters and the traditional songs of China. Despite this apparently impossible dream, he has some protection from the excesses of the Communist governments from the heroic record of his father, a survivor of the Long March in the People's Revolutionary Army and the Japanese invasion in World War II and he becomes a professor at the Shanghai Conservatory where he is loved by his niece Zhuli, a violin prodigy and his most talented student, pianist Kai. After the Cultural Revolution, with every piano and violin smashed, how do these three survive as the sensitive and extraordinary human beings that they have been? Sparrow burns most of his music and hides letters from Canada in the covers of his recordings by burying them under the floor tiles of his father's traditional courtyard house, as his father instructs his sons to write posters denouncing him as a criminal rightist. Their stories are the main but not the only ones in this epic of Chinese life in those terrible times of political incoherence amid famine. Thien begins with a first person narration in Canada by young Marie or Li-Ling, the daughter of Kai, the piano virtuoso who has left his marriage, returned to China and died there in 1989. Marie and her mother wait for the daughter of Sparrow, Ai-ming who has escaped from China, to arrive. The mother shows Kai's papers to Marie, who sees that they include a tiny, hand written, hand made book of one chapter of a traditional epic, The Book of Records which had beautiful calligraphy and had been smuggled secretly from hand to hand over many years. The story here contains coded clues to the survival and whereabouts of those who fled the persecutions of those times. Thien, in the predominately 3rd person omniscient narration that follows, uses these secret booklets to tie together the various stories of her characters and the history of their parents and grandparents going back to 1966 and that other disaster, The Great Leap Forward. However, her greatest achievement is her representation of the struggle in the minds of her characters as they endure overwhelming social pressure. The character of Sparrow, especially shows how one might succeed, through love of music, to obtain freedom in the mind when freedom of expression and association is denied. All her characters show the cost of their attempts to do this without destroying their relationships with friends and family. I found the book totally engaging and authentic as it raised my spirit, largely because of its minor key, musical approach to those events which do not dominate the narrative.

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