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category: Fiction
published: Apr 2006
ISBN:9780771085130

Certainty

by Madeleine Thien

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rated!
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list price: $32.99
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Paperback
category: Fiction
published: Apr 2006
ISBN:9780771085130
Description

Madeleine Thien’s stunning debut novel fulfills all her early promise and introduces a young novelist of vision, maturity, and style.

Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries in present-day Vancouver, finds herself haunted by events in her parents’ past in wartorn Asia, a past which remains a mystery that fiercely grips her imagination.

As a child, Gail’s father, Matthew Lim, wandered the Leila Road and the jungle fringe with his lovely Ani, a girl whose early bond with Matthew will affect his life always. As children, they found themselves together under the terrifying shadow of war in Japanese-occupied Sandakan, Malaysia. The war shatters their families and splits the two apart until years later, when they remeet only to be separated again. The legacy of their connection is later inherited by Matthew’s wife, Clara, in unexpected ways.

Gail’s journey to unravel the mystery of her parents’ lives takes her to Amsterdam, where she meets the war photographer Sipke, who tells his story of Ani and their relationship, which began in Jakarta, a story that will bring Gail face to face with the complications in her own life and lead her closer to the truth.

Vivid, poignant, wise, at once sweeping and intimate, Certainty is a novel about the legacies of loss, about the dislocations of war and the redemptive qualities of love. Thien reveals herself as a novelist of rare and potent talent.

Contributor Notes

Madeleine Thien’s first book of fiction, Simple Recipes, won four awards in Canada, was a finalist for a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and was named a notable book by the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. Originally from Vancouver, Thien recently moved to Quebec City.

Editorial Review

“I am astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity.”
Alice Munro

“The austere grace and polished assurance of her prose [is] remarkable.”
New York Times Book Review

“Thien weaves dark magic.”
Elle

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Certainty - The Mastery of the Suspended Present

Defining the centrality of Certainty is not unlike watching the silhouette illusion of Nobuyuki Kayahara’s Spinning Dancer. Does the dancer spin to the right or the left? For many readers, Certainty is primarily the story of Gail Lim’s efforts to uncover the secrets of the past of her father Matthew Lim. These readers will endeavour to discover Gail, who is undiscoverable—the shadow that she is. For me, the joy in reading Certainty was in watching the bond grow between Matthew and his childhood friend then lover Ani against the backdrop of war-time and post-war Malaysia.

As the Japanese Imperial Army inflicts brutality on the city of Sandakan, North Borneo, many of the inhabitants flee to the jungle to live out the war scavenging for roots and berries, and most die of starvation. Others succumb to the Japanese demand for total subservience and accept to work for the occupiers in exchange for survival rations. Matthew’s father, a rubber plantation manager is coerced into the ranks of the local occupation bureaucracy. The father’s decision ensures the safety of his son and wife, but not his own. Seven-year-old Matthew is drawn to Ani, whose father is executed by the Japanese after they exhaust him through slave labour. The two children share what they can—Matthew from the food that his father earns as a collaborator and Ani from her roadside singing of the Kimigayo,the very poetic imperial anthem of Japan. Her voice touches the ordinary Japanese soldiers who sing along and share with her not only small portions of rice but also photos of their loved ones back home. The defining moment of the novel comes when as the war draws to an end, Ani says to Matthew with absolute certainty, “Don’t be afraid. We will always take care of each other no matter where we go.”

The settings in Certainty add value to the prose. We are treated to an exotic journey from the rubber plantations of Sandakan to post-colonial Jakarta to rain-soaked Vancouver, my home city, and then to the wind-struck shores of Friesland. Thien’s research into the events of era also enriches the novel. But the most compelling element of her writing is her mastery of the suspended present—the dreamworld entre chien et loup. She calibrates the movement of her prose to lull the readers into embracing her own emotions and then carries them through her forest of mystical imagery.

Although generally Thien’s character development in Certainty falls short of what she later achieved in her second novel Dogs at the Perimeter, I was drawn to the simple beauty of Ani and empathized with Matthew. However, for the most part, I found Thien’s other characters too stoic—too hollowed out by missed opportunity and the misfortune of circumstances. Like dried leaves, their lives just floated on a watery surface of what could have been.

Madeleine Thien is a Canadian author who is transitioning to greatness. Her style is evolving to new heights in literary fiction, yet remains in a form accessible to readers of general fiction. In the new millennium dominated by raw erotica, zombies, vampires and paint-by-numbers fantasy, Thien’s novels are a breath of wistful fresh air, and her best is assuredly yet to come.

Reviewed by Con Cú, the author of Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls.

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