This Booker prize short listed novel is a story of fragments and shards, stops and starts, texts and copies, mathematics and unfinished symphonies and words with dual meanings. Ostensibly, this is the tale of several related families set in and around the cultural revolution in China, but also springing forward to Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Canada in the early 90s. It describes the struggles in particular of Sparrow, a talented composer, who--in order to preserve his family--destroys his own work and is put to laboring in a factory (and dreaming of a perfect silence). It also describes his lover-in-all-but-physical-deed Kai, who has a “purer” peasant family history and a quicker turn to the Red Guard and thus prospers as a musician in Beijing despite the revolution, yet loses his soul.
In some ways, Thien's writing is unconventional with quick shifts of point of view. In others, it is quite conventional, and symbols hit you on the head like cartoon anvils. However, the novel grew on me, as the restrained passions (even at times passivity) of the characters acquired over time a narrative momentum and quiet emotional charge. Terror, denunciations, humiliations, beatings, false confessions, disappearances, vicious mobs, and wasted lives are part and parcel of this novel, so it is no easy read, but there are survivors and there are heroes and a host of well-drawn secondary characters.