The book is not only a revolutionary saga but a beautiful exploration of Chinese culture, language and identity, with Marie constantly exploring the roots of words, their visual symbols and their meanings, which beautify connects non-Chinese speaking readers to the language and the ways of naming and speaking that the novel immerses us in.
At the centre of the novel is a musicality – not only in the importance of music to the characters, but in the way it is literally depicted on the pages, like the Chinese symbols, and in the patterns of speech and text. It is a long book reaching nearly 500 pages, and covers complex Chinese history, unfamiliar to many in the West, but it is incredibly accessible and easy to read, engaging us with characters from another time, place and culture the way that books should make us experience the things we don’t know or understand.
However, as the novel progresses we truly do start to learn about the horrors of China’s revolutions, we become involved in an epic story, spanning 60 years, focused around three important periods – life after the first revolution of 1949, the student protests of 1989, and finally the present day where Marie goes looking for Ai-Ming.
Thien’s context building is incredible, and her scenes depicting the real events of revolution are heart-wrenching. She frames the story through Marie, uncovering a mystery in her search for Ai-Ming. People disappearing and searches are a recurring theme, and so hidden communications, in an effort to find these people, also become a theme, through the copies made of the Book of Records, with the different meanings behind Chinese characters becoming code. Music serves the same purpose for Marie in the present day, and ultimately the book of records becomes an important metaphor for history – a lived, experienced history.
The book was insightful in terms of its Chinese roots but it also carries an important message for the world right now – that extremism in any form, even populist revolution is dangerous, harmful and spreads hate.
Thien’s book is beautifully written, highly literary but well grounded enough for the reader to connect with at the same time. It is a truly stunning work of art and an appreciation of art itself.