Tuesday, October 17, 2017

As it happened...

In the month of August, I made a couple of  day trips to Kuala Lumpur. Each time I made my little detour to the BookXcess Bookshop at Starling Mall before heading to the airport. During one such trip,  I was cutting the time rather fine and ended up having to take an Uber car to the airport as  I did not want to be caught in downtown traffic and risk missing my return flight home. I had to prevent myself from thinking that if I had been more prudent and managed to catch the airport bus from the public transport hub, the cost of an Uber car ride would be equivalent to the price of one book or several that I could purchase, depending on which bookstore I go to. The Uber car driver was rather chatty. By the end of my one hour plus ride, I knew that he was  a father of four boys and he and his wife would long for a girl.  He also told me that he would like to move his family to Australia as he had dreams of having a farm and living there. Years ago, he had visited his aunt in Brisbane while she was there and he really liked it then. I hope he would make his dream a reality .
As it happened, when I arrived at the airport well before time and joined a throng of passengers who were seated at the boarding gate, I was told that  the flight would be delayed and we would not take off for at least another forty-five minutes. I had all these books that I had bought and I was too exhausted and famished to read any of them. What a bummer.

Some months ago, I lent a friend my daughter’s copy of  The Girl on the Train  click  and she returned the book just before she left for France. She had not quite finished reading the novel so l decided to get her a copy of the book by Paula Hawkins from the BookXcess webstore click. She told me, " I think I know whodunnit"  and she could not be more wrong. I could not tell her the ending as that would be a spoiler.  When I placed the order, I bought along with it  The Believers by Zoe Heller. The Believers is a novel about a dysfunctional family living in Greenwich Village in New York.

In 1962, eighteen year old Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a prominent civil rights leftist lawyer from America at a party. He is attracted to her, asks her out  and then proposes to her. Despite an age gap of some thirteen to fourteen years between them, she takes him up on his offer as she feels that is her chance to break away from her mundane life as a typist in suburban London. 

Forty years on,  Audrey has to re-examines everything she thought she knew about her marriage to Joel when he suffers a stroke and ends up in comatose. Audrey and Joel have two daughters, Karla and Rosa. They also have an adopted son, Lenny who is into drugs. While Joel lies in the hospital, Audrey and children have to battle their own demons and with each other. Ultimately they each have to decide on what they truly believe in. Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, decides to get connected with her Jewish roots. As she grapples with Orthodox Judaism, her unhappily married sister, Karla  is falling for an unlikely suitor at the hospital where she works.

Audrey and Joel had always prided themselves in accepting mortality as facts of life. When the doctors advises Audrey that Joel's vegetative condition will not improve, she  refuses to agree to  terminating the life sustaining equipment.Once upon a time, Audrey's brash manner had been a mere posture but 'somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will.'

Here are snippets from the novel. 

At the edges of her fury with the doctor, there was an embarrassed awkwardness of her own hypocrisy. She and Joel had never been sentimentalists about death. Over the years, their discussions about their own mortality had always been showily phlegmatic. ‘ When the day comes that I can’t take a piss on my own,” Joel had told her a few years back when he started having trouble with prostate, I want you to have me chopped up for horsemen,okay? How often had they shaken their heads ruefully at the dotty sanctity-of-life types who insisted on keeping their loved ones alive when they were no more sensate than parsnips?How often had they congratulated themselves on the fact that, as atheists, they were uniquely well-equipped to face the end of life with dignity? ‘We’ve got nothing to be scared about,’Joel always said. ‘We know there’s nothing else.’

      Yet now that the discussion had departed the comfortable realm of dinner- table posturing - now that  she was confronting the possibility of actually presiding over her husband’s death - she understood how cowardly their former bravado had been. All those jokes about not wasting public health resources and suffocating one another with plastic bags —— what had they really been but avoidance? Refused to confront the horror of extinction?’

On arriving home, Rosa went straight to her bedroom, knelt down before her dresser and began rummaging through the bottom drawer. At length, she unearthed an ancient pack of Marlboro Lights. She laid the cigarettes on the bed and considered them. The mere act of smoking, evil as it was, was not yet sufficiently evil for her purpose. She stood up and went down the hall to run a bath. Here was decadence : she would smoke in the tub.’

In The Believers, the dialogues created by Zoe Heller are animated and witty and the caricatures of the characters are wry, some not so likeable but they feel real. 

Zoe Heller is a brilliant novelist as she describes the different characters with acute and unsentimental observations and captures candidly the essence of human follies, hypocrisies, contradictions and insecurities. 

After having read The Believers by Zoe Heller, I cannot wait to read Everything You Know that I recently bought  from Kinokuniya webstore. It is a debut novel  by the same author.

Friday, October 13, 2017


We know things are never quite what they seem but more often than not, we are afraid to rock  the 'place' we are in and look closely and openly at where we are. 

Good writers have the innate ability to describe so aptly the psychic of the ordinary people and their relationships that you find their fictionalized characters real and the circumstances that they have landed themselves in are completely plausible.

Trust written by Mike Bullen explores suburbia, friendships and contemporary relationships. It is about two couples. Greg and Amanda have been together for thirteen years and have two young daughters while Dan and Sarah have been married for sixteen years and have one teenage son, Russell. 

Greg and Dan work in sales for the British division of the same multinational computer company and they both spend half their time on the road and go on sales conference every year. 

Greg tells Dan," What happens on tour, stays on tour, right? Our little secret.

The story is essentially about how one bad decision can turn a couple's seemingly happy life in disarray and help turn an unhappy couple around and back in love again. Mike Bullen's debut novel is fast moving and it feels like watching one of those feel good movies when I read it.  It is a fast and light read interjected with good humour and a touch of realism.

Saving Grace by Jane Green  is a women’s fiction about trust and relationships. It is more intense and definitely a page turner.  

Grace Chapman is married to bestselling author Ted and lives in a picture perfect farmhouse on the Hudson River in New York state. It was whirlwind romance, passion and  excitement. Then  life gets hard when she jumps as she sees the barn door open, Ted emerging, she wonders the kind of mood he is in.

When Ellen, their old assistant leaves, Beth becomes their new assistant. As Beth is not only organised, she is  also eager to learn and smart,is Beth too good to be true?

When Grace loses her interest in cooking and finds her life coming apart, she fears she is going crazy just like her mother. 

   ‘ There is nothing Grace loves more than being alone in her kitchen, surrounded by food, inspirational recipes scattered on the counter in front of her as she tries out new dishes. When she is working on a book, she will use assistants, but it is these moments , when it is just Grace, alone in her kitchen experimenting, that makes her happiest of all. ‘

In the beginning, when she first met Ted, it felt as if she had fallen into the kind of life that only happened to other people, and usually only in movies. It was a life she determined to enjoy while it lasted, convinced it wouldn’t last long, for Ted could have his pick. There were always women more exciting, more glamorous, more beautiful than she.’

She loved the house before Ted’s moods had the ability to discombobulate her in the way they do now.  In the early days of marriage,  she could  laugh it off but the years have taken their toll and she is no longer finding it easy to deal with his rage and mood swings.

'She used to fight back. She doesn't anymore. She withdraws into a well of pain and resentment, removing herself .....'

' This life had made her so happy, for so many years, she had never wanted anything or anyone else. She had never thought to question her role, to question her happiness. Most of the time she truly felt that  somewhere up high, perhaps to make up for the hell of her childhood, the gods, the angels, were smiling upon her.
      She had been charmed. She led a charmed life. At least if she didn't look too closely; at least if you pretended, as she did so well for so long, that if you put on a good enough act, it would make it so. But then the gods and angels had deserted her and she fell to the ground with a crash. And now? This is a decision of necessity ..........'

Jane Green writes proficiently. She has included some mouth watering recipes in  Saving Grace. 

In both Trust and Saving Grace, the women are compelled to confront demons that have been haunting them for years. Amanda in Trust and Grace in Saving Grace are afraid to become like their mothers. In Trust, Amanda’s mother repeatedly condoned her husband’s infidelity whereas Grace’s mother is manic depressive and bipolar. Her mother had mood swings so bad that Grace had lived in fear throughout her childhood. 

In a book of fiction or a film , there must always be a resolution and that is what we expect when we read fictions or watch a film. If only life were so straightforward.
San Sebastian

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Perfect Sunday

Overcast weather is perfect weather for a Sunday.

I  read profusely. I read to gain better understanding of  thoughts in general  and the very nature of our being or the very being of  our nature.

I read about the trajectory of  life, the state of  our being and hope to expand my mind. I read to write better sentences. Mostly I read for pleasure. I read more than one book at a time and try to be an omnivorous reader.

Words persuade, dissuade, describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our truths and the ordinary events that shape our lives. 

It was one of those Sundays when the weather was perfect for reading outdoor. Even if it is  overcast weather, I am too wary of pigmentation to sit in the sun. Sunbathing is a thing of the past since I discovered how pigmentations have found their way to my skin.

Our dog does not  enjoy solitude and I have found a happy compromise. 
After some rain storms, the dog wanted the sun as much as I did. She left me alone when I read under the porch. She just wanted me to be in the vicinity, how adorable. I told  her , “ Maybe you can read in your next life.”  She seemed  to understand  and  lied there next to me, looking contented. She did her downward facing dog stretch like what she does all the time. She is natural at it, it is her pose after all.

When our  dog moved away from my feet, I knew  the sun had  reappeared.

We want the breeze and the sun. We want to have it all.

In the early evening, our dog hopped onto the wooden table where my book was placed, it was as if she wanted to see what book I was reading. After dinner , I took her  for an evening walk. She behaved so it was good. I never know how to train a dog.

I was reading The Noise of Time  written by  Julian Barnes . The story is based on the life of Dimitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, a Russian composer and how the tumultuous evolution of Soviet Union has affected him in his music compositions. The novel begins with the composer on the landing of his apartment block in the middle of the night waiting by the lift thinking that he would be arrested and persecuted as his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk click has met with Stalin's disapproval and public denunciation. The year was 1936.

The life of Shostakovich is full of ironies and contradictions.
In The Noise of Time, 
' One of the few places where optimism and pessimism could happily coexist -- indeed , where the presence of both is necessary for survival -- was family life. So, for instance, he loved Nita (optimism) , but did not know if he was a good husband (pessimism). He was an anxious man, and aware that anxiety makes people  egotistical and bad company. Nita would go off to work; but the moment she arrived at her Institute, he would telephone to ask when she was coming home. He could see that this was annoying: but his anxiety would just get the better of him.

   He loved the children ( optimism ) , but was not sure if he was a good father (pessimism). Sometimes he felt his love for his children was abnormal. even morbid. Well, life is not a walk across a field, as the saying goes.'

 Julian Barnes guides us through Shostakovich's career and meditates on the meaning of art and its place in a society that commands reeducation for artists.

' Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art's sake: it exists for people's sake. But which people, and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary form his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.'

The following passage strikes a chord with me.

' In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination. It is best to start life in a cheerful and open state of mind, believing in others, being optimistic, being frank with everyone about everything. And then, as one comes to understand things and people better, to develop a sense of irony. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism, and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.
          But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.'

The question thus is: Could irony protect Shostakovich's music? All his life, he had avoided joining the party but in 1960, when Shostakovich no longer feared for his life, he was required to join the Communist Party to endorse the new direction taken by his country and he had to accept the chairmanship of the Russian Federation Union of Composers.

' So irony becomes a defence of the self and the soul ; it lets you breather on a day-to -day basis. You write in a letter that someone is a 'marvellous person' and the recipient knows to conclude the opposite. 

The composer  had lived long enough to be dismayed by himself.

'And how would he now appear to his younger self, standing by the roadside as a haunted face in an official car swept past? Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised.'

' He attended Party meetings as instructed. He let his mind wander during the endless speeches, merely applauding whenever others applauded. On one occasion, a friend asked why he had clapped a speech in the course of which Khrennikov had violently criticised him. The friend thought he was being ironic or, possibly, self-abusing. But the truth was , he hadn't been listening.'

All  his life, the composer had relied on irony.
So irony becomes a defence of the self and the soul ; it lets you breather on a day-to -day basis. You write in a letter that someone is a 'marvellous person' and the recipient knows to conclude the opposite. 

' If you turned your back on irony, it curdled into sarcasm. And what good was it then?Sarcasm was irony which has lost its soul. 

The Noise of Time  is descriptive about how the composer had to submit to Power and lived through the complexities of life under tyranny. Despite repressive regimes and official intimidation, Shostakovich managed to compose music and produce great symphonies against the noise of time. If you ask to whom does music belong to, not being able to answer is the correct answer as Julian Barnes writes, ' Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.'

Julian Barnes is absolutely prolific and his prose thought-provoking. He is a brilliant writer.

Friday, September 22, 2017

On Reading

Why read? The answer is simple.
I read  because I like to read. In the same vein, I write because I like to write.

I even read between my laptop and book before me interchangeably. During the day, I write intermittently and  most days I write daily.

In his book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft , Stephen King writes, 
'So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.'

I am a compulsive reader as reading helps me to think and write. I resonate with what Stephen King has written in his memoir,
I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favourite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution.’

Every day I feel torn between books I love to read and cases and texts I need to read for work. I am aware that reading during meals may cause indigestion and as a rule since I frown on multitasking, I should focus on eating while eating but for me reading is the exception.  I go everywhere with a good novel to keep me company. When I lunch alone, I always have a book with me. When I am not sure if  I will enjoy a particular book, I will bring with me another book that  I know will be good.   

 In his memoir, Stephen King wrote, “ The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.”

This week I had been going to bed past midnight as I engaged myself in reading the fiction I’ll see you in Paris written by Michelle Gable.
It is a story about a young woman in search of the missing pieces in her life. She wants to know who her dad is. Her mother is an accomplished lawyer and a protective single parent who only wants to shield her only daughter from the harsh fact of who her dad was and what happened to him.

Despite her mother’s discouragement, Annie, aged twenty-two, is engaged to Eric, a Marine just before he gets shipped off to the Middle East. When Annie’s  mother, Laurel  Haley and her take a trip to Banbury, she stumbles upon a biography of the eccentric Duchess of Marlborough who had lived in Banbury. When they arrive in Banbury, Laurel has some business to take care of, leaving Annie to her own device. When Annie and the book catch the attention of Gus, an older gentleman who frequents the pub that Annie happens to visit, Gus shares with her stories about the elusive duchess and  she becomes increasingly intrigued with the story of the mysterious duchess and in the end, she uncovers the missing pieces in her own life.

I’ll See You in Paris click is a fiction based on real life of Gladys Spencer –Churchill, the Duchess of Marborough who lived until ripe old age of 97 years old. Quite a complicated setting. The author has created a romantic story between two people by blending historical facts to the setting.The novel is a page turner and an enjoyable read. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Le week-end

On Sunday afternoon, I made a quiche for dinner, three quarter of it with salmon and mushrooms and the remaining quarter with  left over bacon bits from previous night dinner. It took me more than two hours to make it from scratch. We were going to bring the quiche to my in-laws. Our dog ran out and it was drizzling. I asked my family to go ahead and I would stay home. Someone had to be home to let the dog back in. I  prefer to be home on Sunday evenings when I can read whatever I am reading and  brace myself for a new work week ahead. 

I was looking forward to reading another satire written by Hanif Kureishi as I had thoroughly enjoyed reading The Buddha of Suburbia click During the weekend, when I read The Last Word by the same author, I could not help thinking if I should have spent my weekend reading another fiction. While I appreciate the author's wit and  the theme of the novel, I am just not fond of the characters in the novel and by the end of the story, I still could not warm up to any of the characters. 

The first paragraph of the novel definitely had my attention.

'Harry Johnson gazed out of the window of the train at the English countryside and thought that not a moment passed when someone wasn’t telling a story. And, if his luck held for the rest of the day, Harry was about to be employed to tell the story of the man he was going to visit. Indeed, he had been chosen to tell the whole story of this important man, this significant artist. How, he wondered, with a shudder, did you begin to do that? Where would you start, and how would the story, which was still being lived, end? More importantly, was he, Harry, capable of such a task?'

In The Last Word, Harry Johnson, a young writer, is commissioned to write a biography of Mamoon Azam, an eminent cricket-loving, Indian-born British novelist, a cranky writer, now living in the Somerset countryside and married to a glamorous Italian. Mamoon’s book sales have dried up and his new wife has expensive tastes. Much comedy and drama ensue as Mamoon himself is mining a different vein of truth while Harry’s publisher seeks a biography that is explosive.  As Harry relentlessly pursues with his enquiry about the materials he has obtained, Mamoon tells Harry,

            " Harry, you know more about my many selves than I do. You're in the remembering business while I'm in the forgetting game, and forgetting is the loveliest of the psychic luxuries, a warm scented bath for the soul. I follow Chuang Tzu click, the patron saint of dementia, who advised, "Sit down and forget.

In his attempts to get Mamoon to verify some things told by Marion, Mamoon's mistress, Harry has angered him by upsetting his second wife, Liana. Mamoon and Harry have this verbal exchange:
“ Marion –I mean Liana –said you’re the sort to want to appear on television! You’re trying to make a career out of me, young man!”
“We’re strapped together, sir. We sink or swim as one beast.”
“Yours is a work of envy, and you are a third-rate semi-failure of a parasite who has got by on meretricious charm and fading looks. DId you ever read a biographer who could write as well as his subject?”
As if this wasn’t enough, Mamoon grabbed Harry by the lapels and tried to throw him against the car.
“ You’re fired, Harry. You’re never going to finish this work of tittle-tattle and when I come in from work tomorrow lunchtime I want to know this ridiculous misadventure is over! We’ve got another writer lined up to take over. He wears a tie!”

I read that The Last Word could be a roman-à-clef as the relationship between Mamoon and Harry seems to closely mirror that between V S Naipaul and Patrick French who wrote a biography of the Nobel laureate, The World Is What It is. The novel provides some insight about artists, writers and literary people while they are fictionalized. The conversations between Mamoon and Harry are combative, which one of them will have the last word? 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Neutral Zone

Reading to me  is  compulsive and obsessive though my selection and picks may be random.
Whenever I have to make a trip to Kuala Lumpur, the  motivation for me is Kinokuniya Bookstore. Since I still have plenty of  books awaiting to be devoured,I have to restrain myself from going on a binge and end up carting  loads of books back. During my recent visit to the bookshop, I had bought three non-fictions : In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood,  Writing Voice, The Complete Guide to creating a presence on the page and engaging Readers  and Scratch on writers, money and the art of making a living.  While I was at Kinokuniya, I came across books that centred around themes like why read or why write, something I had contemplated about. When I arrived at the airport a tad too early, I ended up browsing around WHSmith and bought four fictions. One of them is The Pier Falls, a short stories collection by Mark Maddon. I enjoy Mark Maddon’s writing style that comes across effortless and effective. When I returned home, I purchased another non- fiction from Kinokuniya through their web store.Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright was one of the books that was recommended by delanceyplace.com.

On my  return trip from Kuala Lumpur this Monday, I worked out that I could spare an hour before heading to the airport so I dropped by BookXcess Bookshop at Starling Mall. I picked up The Last Word,  a fiction by Hanif  Kureishi  and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simson. I have read fictions by both these writers and I like their wits. I have read first few pages of every book I have purchased in August and I will settle on some of them as I normally do read a few books at the same time.

A friend has lent me her copy of Stephen King’s memoir on writing and I am half way through it. It is definitely worth a read. 

There are books lying in my car so that I will always have something to read while waiting for a friend to turn up for coffee ( in all likelihood I am the one running late because I am stuck on reading or writing). I read when I wait for my turn to have my eyes checked by the ophthamologist but I dislike it when he applies eye drop to get the pupils dilated as I will have to keep both my eyes closed then. I read when and where I can.

I compartmentalise my reading in that I will read different books at various intervals during the week. Some books are best read in one sitting. One such novel is In the Café of Lost Youth written by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Euan Cameron. 

The story is about Jacqueline Delanque, a young girl growing up in poverty in Montmartre. She is on a restless quest to an unknowable destination. She frequents the Café Condé where young students, aspiring writers and world-weary academics go.  They are the lost youth who wander in and they are all in search of the same elusive something. There are also older customers who never make reference of their past.

At Le Condé, Jacqueline was different from the others. They named her “Louki” .

 'Those who frequented Le Condé would often be carrying a book, its cover stained with wine, which they would lay casually on the table. Les Chants de Maldoror, Les Illuminations, Les Barricades mystérieuses. But she, to begin with, was always empty-handed. Then, she probably wanted to be like the others, and one day, at Le Condé, I caught her one her own, reading. From then on, her book never left her.’

She used to go to Mattel, a stationer’s and bookseller’s shop on boulevard de Clichy that stays open until one o’clock in the morning.
In Jacqueline's narrative,
“ Yes, this bookshop was not merely a refuge but also a stage in my life. I often stayed there until closing time.”
“ I wasn’t truly myself except at the moment I was running away. My only good memories are memories of flight or escape. But life always got the upper hand.”

Sometimes life will somehow get you and you imagine or wish you could just run but you know you just have to let go of whatever that affects you. I find joy in reading to prevent myself from becoming too overwhelmed by the life that I know. I read because I like to read.

To get its rhythm, In the Café of Lost Youth has to be read without interruptions from start to finish. The story is told from different perspectives by four narrators, a young student who goes to the Café Condé, Roland, Louki and Pierre Caisley, a private investigator engaged by Louki’s husband. The mood is melancholic and affecting as the different narrations construct a picture of Jacqueline and what happened to her. Patrick Modiano is crafty at capturing the scenes of  old streets in Paris and  the nostalgic feel that evokes memories of the indefinable past and lost youth.  click

Friday, August 18, 2017


I thought I was running late for court. The Judge normally starts at 9 sharp. I ran as fast as my heels allowed me, when I walked in, the court was filled with lawyers and public members.
A smartly dressed lady said to me, ‘There is a reference.’
“ What reference ?” I was obviously in a daze.
The woman looked puzzled and she could not figure out if I had not known the meaning of holding a reference or that there was a reference going on.
“You know reference for departed members of the Bar?” I felt really awkward that I had not bothered to read all the circulars that had been sent  to me.

A couple  of these lawyers who have passed on had acted for my clients’ opponents and they had fought hard for their clients. I cannot help thinking about  how mortal we are. I know it is such a cliché to think so and it makes me think of the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song, “ Blowing in the Wind” .It also makes me want to run to the music CD shop where the shop manager was supposed to have placed an order for one of Bob Dylan’s albums to replace  a French CD that I had bought as a going away present for an ex- staff who was attached to an association I volunteer in. The staff did not want to accept any gifts from the organisation as token of appreciation. She was consumed with so much resentment and anger that her only way to let bygone be bygone was to leave no trace in her recent memory. She was certainly thinking about her future.  

Change is what we constantly have to deal with in life. Every individual evolves and adapts to the changes in and around them in order to continue living. What if your country is undergoing  a revolution that will bring about changes so huge that everything that you think you stand for and pursue will be unacceptable and you are forced to cast aside your aspirations and the only way to stay alive is to hide your dreams  and  give up your talent  so that you could protect yourself and your family? I could only imagine that life would be unbearable.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing written by Madeleine Thien is a fiction set during the Cultural Revolution in China. Life was brutal and oppressive for those who were intellectual, artistic and creative. Those citizens whose pursuits were not in conformist with the regime had to undergo re-education. The story is about Marie’s ongoing struggle to understand her father’s tragic life, unrequited dreams and attempt to understand the turbulent past of China. Marie remembers her dad, Jiang Kai as a kind but melancholy man. He was a renowned concert pianist in China and he gave her her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling. When he died at age 39, she was only a child. Marie is a Mathematics professor in Simon Fraser University in Canada. When she was still a teenager in Vancouver, her mother received a letter from Shanghai asking for a favour. There was a request to take care of Ai Ming, a 19-year-old who had got into trouble in Beijing during the Tiananmen demonstrations.

In  Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ai Ming said to the protagonist, Marie,
You understand, don’t you ?” she said. “The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.

Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. Marie recognised it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.

Teacher Sparrow, a great composer, was Ai Ming’s father and he had to hide his true calling. He witnessed how young music students became red guards and ridiculed, tormented their professor and President of Shanghai Conservatory as their traitor and counter-revolutionary. Sparrow was Jiang Kai’s composition teacher and they were close.

When life gets tough, it is music, beauty and art that make it bearable. Imagine the horrors that befell classical musicians when the music they loved was forbidden. Their instruments were destroyed and they were accused of vanity and regarded as national threat thus dispatched to work in the farms and factories of the hinterlands. The movement began during the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the people had to become only what the ruling party proclaimed them to be, they existed to be forged and re-forged by the Party.

Zhuli, a talented young musician was taken away to live with Sparrow’s mother who was her aunt when her parents were sent away for re-education. Her aunt was known as Big Mother Knife who was Ai Ming’s grandmother. and Sparrow’s mother.
When her mother returned home after six years in the desert camp, Zhuli wondered what words she could possibly say to her. There were no words adequate to the feeling between them.’
 Zhuli felt that it had been her fault that her parents had been persecuted. Zhuli had discovered the underground library and she went down almost every day. 
‘It was just below ground, as if a very large and well-made wooden box, a shipping container, had been buried with a living room inside it, like an afterlife for Old West. There was  a cushioned chair large enough for six Zhulis, an imported kerosene lamp and a full case of oil, stacks and stacks of books, and a soft, woven mat on the floor.

A boy saw her emerge from the soil and that very day, the container was dug up and all the objects carted off and the books, the soft carpets and the cushioned chair were confiscated and neighbours plastered off the mud brick house with hastily written denunciations.

The novel contains a web of tales and it takes concentration to read it. Music serves as a figure for many things in the novel: Kai’s troubled relationship to his past and homeland, his love for teacher Sparrow and a repressive regime. When Kai met up with Sparrow again, the latter was a changed man for his hands had learned another language entirely after being sent to work in a factory and he had gone from building wooden crates to making radios. He could no longer compose music. When the country was opening up again, the possibilities broke his heart as he was no longer the same person. He had become the Bird of Quiet.
I used to be humbled before music, he thought. I loved music so much it blinded me to the world. What right do I have, do any of us have, to go back? Repetition was an illusion. The idea of return, of beginning over again. of creating a new country, had always been a deception, a beautiful dream from which they had woken. Perhaps they had loved one another, but now Sparrow had his parents to care for. They relied on him, and his life was not his own, it belonged to his wife and to Ai -ming as well. And it was true, factory work had brought a peace he had never known before. The routine had freed him.

Madeleine Thien writes,
IN A SINGLE  YEAR, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.’

The opening line is haunting and captivating. The prose is descriptive and well written. A definitely good read. 

I often turn to my reading and writing for solace and they are the air that I must breathe thus  I cannot imagine a world where you are allowed to chant and read only certain writings. But then so often as I read , I wonder if we are truly thinking as freely as we like to think we are. Are thoughts really our own?