In Thien’s luminescent third novel (following Dogs at the Perimeter, which won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 LiBeraturpreis), stories, music, and mathematics weave together to tell one family’s tale within the unfolding of recent Chinese history. Beginning in 1989 in Hong Kong and Vancouver, this narrative snakes both forward and backward, describing how a pair of sisters survived land reform, re-education at the hands of the Communists, the coming of the Red Guard, the Cultural Revolution, and the protests at Tiananmen square.
The story is partially told by the central character, mathematics professor Marie Jiang (Jiang Li-ling), as she discovers her
late father’s past as a pianist, which was left behind and concealed when he left China for Canada. Thien takes readers into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Marie’s father studied with composer Sparrow and violinist Zhuli in the midst of the cultural upheaval in the 1960s. Filled with intrigue, shifting loyalties, broken families, and unbroken resistance, this novel is beautifully poetic and as carefully constructed as the Bach sonatas that make frequent appearance in the text. Thien’s reach-though epic -does not extend beyond her capacity, resulting in a lovely fugue of a book that meditates on fascism, resistance, and personhood.