In her stunning debut novel about a woman's journey to unravel the mystery of her parents' lives, Madeleine Thien proves herself a writer of vision, maturity, and style.
Certainty follows Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries in Vancouver, as she works to uncover the history of her parents' relationship and struggles to come to terms with the events that brought them together. Gail's search for the truth leads her to Amsterdam where she meets a war photographer named Sipke, who tells her the story of a woman named Ani--and in so doing, reveals valuable information that not only sheds further light on Gail's parents, but also brings Gail face to face with the complications in her own life and closer to unraveling the questions that have gripped her imagination.
With a voice at once vivid and poignant, Thien crafts a story that explores the legacies of loss, the dislocations of war, and the redemptive qualities of love.
About the author
Madeleine Thien (born 1974) is a Canadian short story writer and novelist. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, she was educated at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. In 2001 she was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award for most promising Canadian writer under age 30. In 2008, she was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Excerpt: Certainty (by (author) Madeleine Thien)
In what was to have been the future, Ansel rolled towards her, half awake, half forgetful. He curved his body around hers and Gail’s warmth drew him back into sleep. Morning passed into afternoon, the rest of the world waited outside, but he and Gail were just rising from bed, they were fumbling into their clothes, they knew that the day was long.
Some of her work, the tapes and reel-to-reel, are in the house. Some in the attic of her parents’ house, and some in her former office. When Ansel listens to them, the finished and the unfinished work, the quality of the recording is fine, as if Gail is in the room herself, her voice preserved on a quarter-inch strip of tape.
There is a sunroom at the front of the house where Ansel drinks his coffee. Across the street, their neighbour is crouched on the ground, snipping the grass with a pair of scissors. Because of the noise, she says. A lawnmower makes far too much noise. She is in her mid-sixties and the wide brim of a sun hat shades her face. Gail, who had grown up in a house a block away, once told Ansel that she remembered this same woman snipping the grass when Gail herself was a child. “All the kids would come with their plastic scissors and help her out. It was a kind of neighbourhood haircut.” Every now and then, Mrs. Cho stands up and massages her lower back. She looks over at Ansel seated alone in the window, lifts her hand to him in greeting.
The coffee is warm and sweet. He closes his eyes and drinks it, and when he opens his eyes again, Gail is still there, a presence in the room, the undercurrent of his thoughts.
It is almost seven o’clock. The sun is up, and it pours a warm, golden light across the houses. Last night, he couldn’t sleep, and this morning his body feels hollow, a loose string that folds naturally over itself. On the table in front of him, a sheaf of papers: Gail’s radiology report, her ekg chart, the pages creased from too much handling. Outside, the branches of the sakura tree flutter in the wind. The tree blooms in March, and by April the blossoms are so heavy all the branches are weighted down. By May, the yard is a snowbank of petals.
Ansel and Gail bought this house ten years ago, in the early-1990s. He had just finished his residency, and Gail was working as a radio producer, making features and documentaries. The house is in Strathcona, the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver. Even now, the Hastings Mill cabins, where workers lived a century ago, still stand. Past the bustle of Chinatown, the downtown core floats like a picture hung against the North Shore mountains. East, and the mills are visible, Ballentyne Pier, with its brightly coloured stacks of containers, and the tall freight elevators.
Theirs is a restored Queen Anne, gabled windows on the top floors. A solid, unremarkable house. On windy days, he imagines he can feel the wooden beams of the house swaying.
Previous homes together had been small apartments in basements or attics, the two of them tucked in amongst their belongings. Now there are books and records and an old piano. Gail’s hand-carved Indonesian box. Ansel’s antique microscope; once, they had spent the afternoon looking at odds and ends. He remembers an onion skin, elegant in its simplicity, the cells stacked together like brickwork.
There is the understanding that she is no longer here, that it was sudden and irrevocable, but this understanding is one moment spread over a thousand hours, a continuous thought that tries to forget itself. And then, when that fails, to bargain, to change everything, to fall asleep and go back to another point in time. “Time,” Gail had said once, as he fell asleep in her arms, “is the only thing we need.”
At Strathcona Elementary School, the Sunday morning tai chi class is already in motion. He can see them through the fence as he walks, grandparents in neon track suits, moving across the pavement in an ensemble, a fluid echo of cause and effect. Bird plucking a leaf from the tree. Hands separating heaven from earth. Gail had listed these off for him. Epic names for the smallest gestures. Together, they step purposefully across the chalk lines for hopscotch and four-square.
Ansel buys his breakfast at the New Town Bakery, where a woman wearing a blank name tag gives him a paper bag filled with warm bread. He continues through Chinatown, past the tanks of melancholy fish. Vegetables spill out from the markets, and the street lamps, recently painted a festive red, glow in the early morning.
After the service, the flowers had followed her across the city, from Hastings Street to 49th Avenue. The houses giving way to Central Park, giving way to the burial grounds. The workers arranged the tall flower stands in concentric circles around her grave, making a perfumed forest. He walked into it and in the centre he found her. Each night the rain knocked them down, the wind scattered the petals across the cemetery, and every day he set them up again. One afternoon, he arrived in the middle of a storm. He raised the flowers up onto their stands, and they collapsed on top of him. He hugged them to his body and lifted them up once more.
Half a year has gone by since then, but this morning, when he walks along the pebbled road beside False Creek, his thoughts return to that small plot of land and the flowers he laid there yesterday. His friend Ed Carney once spent an entire morning giving Ansel his thoughts on passing time. Time’s arrow pointing in both directions, the past flying into view as you stumble backwards into the future, Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. Ed had mused about scientists who experimented with their circadian rhythms, re-establishing themselves on a twenty-six-hour clock. “Mostly they had the police after them, wondering what trouble they were up to.” The conversation had ended there. Ed had gone back to mowing his lawn, and Ansel had continued walking.
Now he sits on the dock at the creek, the moored boats swaying with the current, and he eats his breakfast. Sunday morning and the city is still sleeping, but she is there beside him, running her feet through the water. That is another timeline, the morning of Gail’s last birthday, fall and not summer. Their last conversation was a telephone call, long distance. His memories struggle to stay afloat, time moves forward, and Ansel feels the divide in his body. One part of him carrying on, living moment to moment, the other part lost to him on the day she died.
Praise for Certainty:
"I am astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity." Alice Munro
"A moving, richly textured and immaculately nuanced study of war, grief, displacement, love, renewal." Montreal Review of Books
"A thing of simple beauty. . . . A wise and thoughtful debut." Winnipeg Free Press
"The austere grace and polished assurance of her prose [is] remarkable." The New York Times Book Review
Certainty - The Mastery of the Suspended PresentDefining 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.