Madeleine Thien’s third novel, recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, begins in Vancouver with Marie, who, like the author, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants to Canada. Marie tells us that her father committed suicide in 1989 and that, soon after, the 19-year-old Ai-ming — whose father knew Marie’s father — came to stay, having escaped China in the aftermath of Tiananmen.
Ai-ming is drawn to a notebook that has been found among Marie’s father’s surviving paperwork: a handwritten copy of part of a mysterious Book of Records. Marie persuades Ai-ming to tell her the story. Her tale transpires to be not the content of that book, but the crucial role it has played in the lives of their families.
She begins in 1949 — when Wen, a poet, wins the heart of Swirl, a singer, by sending her chapter-by-chapter transcriptions of the book — and ends in Tiananmen 50 years later. Swirl, like many readers of the Book of Records, finds it to be an uncanny echo of her life:
On its surface, the story was a simple epic, chronicling the fall of empire; but the people trapped inside the book reminded her of people she tried not to remember — her brothers and parents, her lost husband and son.
The book becomes a way of defying the political regime, and the act of storytelling becomes a means of surviving a brutal history. The power of words is shown to cut both ways, however, as Thien highlights how often writing is used to enforce the horrors of the revolution. People must write self-criticisms and denunciations; political posters proliferate; and ink is poured over victims in sessions of public torture.
Central to Ai-ming’s story is a musical trio: Wen and Swirl’s daughter Zhuli, a violinist; her cousin Sparrow, a composer; and their friend Kai, a pianist. When Zhuli first listens to a record, she finds that ‘inside her head, the music built columns and arches, it cleared a space within and without, a new consciousness.’
Thien posits that the individual’s great struggle under such a controlling political regime is to preserve this inner world. She suggests that music and storytelling are two ways of trying to do so, while showing the potentially overwhelming strain of living with such dissonance between public and private selves.
The novel’s musical refrain is Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, echoing the many retellings of the Book of Records, and indicative of Thien’s compelling preoccupation with the idea of multiple copies. Ai-ming reflects:
Even if everything repeats, it is not the same… she could take names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records… She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.
So Thien has given us her own Book of Records in this piercing blur of fiction and history.