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Certainty, by Madeleine Thien

November 22, 2014

Certainty, by Madeleine Thien.  Little, Brown and Company (2007), 321 pages.


A tender and thoughtful novel weaving together several characters’ stories as they search for knowledge of themselves and each other, learn to cope with uncertainty, and accept their inability to reshape the past.

Certainty is about never being sure we know ourselves and each other. About the difficulty of knowing enough to be safe ourselves and able to protect those we love. The writing in this novel has a bell-like quality and reads smoothly and easily. Underneath its surface beauty is a complex structure difficult to summarize. Long sections of the novel focus different characters in different places; the story of each separate, but overlapping the others and carrying a shared narrative. The book opens six months after the sudden, but peaceful death of Gail, a bright, 39-year-old woman who produced radio documentaries. Her long-time lover, her parents, and neighbors are still mourning. Sparked by her death, they look back at their own experiences.

Matthew, Gail’s father, was a child in Malaysia during World War II and carries the pain and disorientation from his experience. Friendship with Ani, an orphaned girl, had helped him survive. His Chinese father had worked with the Japanese in hope of protecting and providing for his family, but Matthew saw him killed by the retreating Japanese. The villagers rejected the boy and his mother because of his father’s collaboration.  Later he returns briefly to the village and is united with Ani, but they go their separate ways. Attending college in Melbourne, Matthew he meets and marries Clare, and the two of them migrate to Vancouver. They become the parents of Gail. Accounts of Clare’s childhood in Hong Kong and her understanding of her husband form a section of the book.  Ani’s narrative about leaving her Malaysian village and going to Jakarta follows. Gail’s partner was a physician and his part of the book describes their relationship and his grief at her death. Gail herself is the focus of yet another story about her work making documentaries and her visit to the Netherlands where Ani had lived.

This is an unusual book by a woman of color which plays down ethnicity, cultural and ethnicity. Madeleine Thien is a Chinese-Malaysian, born in Vancouver, British Columbia, after her parents and siblings migrated there. She is most interested in universal themes of love and loss, knowledge and uncertainty, and how her characters deal with the unknowable. Much of the novel takes place in Vancouver, the current home of most of her characters, but long sections reach back to Malaysia during and immediately after its Japanese occupation during World War II. Other action takes place in Indonesia and the Netherlands. Matthew and Ani’s childhood could only have happened in a specific time and place, but what they carry is the experience more than the culture. Thien reminds us of how quickly and easily people move around in the world of today and the importance of global stories.

Without a strong plot, Thien holds the book together with the power of her writing. Motifs and conversations resurface throughout the book in different times among different people. All the characters are trying to understand and know everything they can. Sometimes their talk gets a bit abstract and scientific, but more often individuals offer wisdom about grief and loss, time and memory, and finding ways to cope.

I am an historian, not a literary expert, and that skews my reaction to books. For me the one of the most important questions addressed in the book was what we can and cannot know with any certainty. Again and again characters in different circumstances realize that we need to continue to expand our understanding while at the same time realizing how little we can ever comprehend. Another overriding question in the book was what we do with our past and the pasts of those around us. Can we deny the pain of what has happened and simply move on, as Matthew attempts? Thien’s characters say, no, we must face and accept our past and our inability to protect those we love. We must accept the fact that our decisions have cut us off from the development of parts of ourselves and we must grieve that loss. We cannot go back and correct what has happened and must move on with that knowledge.

Certainty is a book I strongly recommend to others. The book’s breadth makes it hard to predict which readers will be drawn to it. Maybe I can just urge all those who love books with both beautiful writing and intellectual depth to read it.  I look forward to reading more of Thien’s writing in the future.

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