It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing such a complex novel. I'll start with the simple: in past years I have been disappointed by the Giller winners; this was a very satisfying exception. I loved the book. It is, however, very dense, almost an epic, and it took me quite a while to read it. I found I couldn't read for long stretches (until the very end where I really wanted to know what happened) and that sometimes meant I forgot small but crucial facts that had previously happened. So I had to go back and search for them. I was glad I was not reading on an e-reader.
The book starts in Vancouver in 1989. Marie is 10 years old and her father has just left his marriage, returned to Hong Kong and killed himself (I'm not giving anything away - this was revealed in the first paragraph). Shortly after, Ai-Ming, a young woman who has fled China following her involvement in the Tiananmen Square massacre, arrives on Marie's doorstep and is given a temporary home by Marie and her mother.
Ai-Ming befriends Marie and begins to tell her the history of her family. It begins when Marie's father is a child and his mother and aunt are singers in teahouses just as Mao is coming to power.
The story then follows Chinese history as seen through the eyes of Ai-Ming's father, Sparrow, his cousin Zhuli and their friend Kai. We are also introduced to many other of Sparrow's friends and relatives. Sparrow is a brilliant composer, his cousin a violinist and Kai a pianist. All are successful at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s - until Mao's forces decide they are too "rightist" for his society and they are forced to make enormous changes in their lives.
There are vivid descriptions of life under Mao - from work camps to raids in the cities to forced work reassignments and punishment of children for the "sins" of their fathers. While individuals attempt to remain loyal to their friends and family members, the pressure to survive almost makes that impossible.
The book also travels from Shanghai to remote villages in China and ultimately to Beijing where Sparrow's family is swept up in the 1989 demonstrations. As Ai-Ming's family's story slowly unfolds we eventually learn her connection to Marie's family and come to understand why she has sought shelter with them.
But Ai-Ming eventually also moves on and Marie, as an adult, is left to search for the ending on her own - eventually travelling to Shanghai and meeting some of the "actors" in Ai-Ming's story and piecing together what led to her father's suicide.
Throughout the book, there is also constant reference to an allegorical "Book of Records" - I found that part a little hard to understand other than it was meant to be a representation of the lives of Ai-Ming and Marie's family members searching the world for each other and ultimately where they are meant to be in their own lives. I did like how it wove the narrative together as various characters searched for and found chapters and used copies of the book to deliver secret messages to each other.
All in all I really enjoyed this book - just don't expect it to be a quick or light read.