FINALIST FOR THE ETHEL WILSON FICTION PRIZE
A vivid, moving novel reminiscent of Anthony Doerr and Michael Ondaatje, about the entwined fates of two very different refugees.
In 1940, as the shadow of war lengthens over Europe, three mysterious travelers enter a village in Spain. They have the appearance of Parisian intellectuals, but the trio of two men and a woman are starving and exhausted from crossing illegally through the Pyrenees. Their story, told over a period of 48 tense hours, is narrated by one of the men, who slowly accepts his unthinkable fate. In a voice despairing and elegant, he calmly considers what he should do, and weighs what any one life means. As he does so, his attention is caught by a five-year-old named Pia who wanders near his cafe table. To Pia he begins to address all that he thinks and feels in his final hours--envisioning a rich future life for her that both reflects and contrasts with his own.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, a woman named Pia seeks solitude on a remote island in the Atlantic, where she works at an inn and reflects on her chaotic childhood. As Pia's story begins, a raging storm engulfs the island and a boat flounders offshore. Pia and her fellow islanders rush to help--and past and present calamities collide.
By turns elegiac and heart-pounding, a love letter in the guise of a song of despair, The Certainties is a moving and transformative blend of historical and speculative fiction--a novel that shows us what it means to bear witness, and to attend to those who seek refuge, past and present.
About the author
Aislinn Hunter is the author of two books of poetry Into the Early Hours and The Possible Past, a short story collection What’s Left Us, and a novel Stay, all of which won national awards including the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, The ReLit Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award, The Danuta Gleed Award and a nomination for the Journey Prize.She teaches creative writing part-time at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and divides her time between Canada and the UK where she is finishing a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh.
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
Excerpt: The Certainties (by (author) Aislinn Hunter)
Yesterday when the three of us presented ourselves at the station, we did as Suzanne’s contact had instructed—waiting inside the tunnel until the train from Perpignan arrived and then slipping into the station with the passengers who were disembarking. We acted as if we’d come in with everyone else: three more ragged travellers among a collective of ﬁfty or sixty, lugging the last vestiges of our old lives in beat-up cases across the platform.
As we moved forward, four Spanish police officers appeared, checking papers and ushering passengers in one of two directions: Spaniards with identity cards were allowed to exit, while the rest of us were steered toward a large set of double doors that had been wedged open and led to a room that appeared to have once been a central waiting room or a customs hall. It had high ceilings, slow-spinning fans, and beige walls strutted with concrete pillars capped with Corinthian designs. There was a row of seats near the door to the platform, but most of the room was empty, save for the long tables where the guards were inspecting suitcases and the counter to their left where a clerk was stationed. Behind her, there was another room, or something approximating a room—an area partitioned by a low wall—in which a half-dozen men sat at desks behind lamps and typewriters and telephones.
Suzanne waited in line with the other passengers to see the clerk, while Bernard and I stood near the door to the platform. The clerk was a local woman in the drab clothes of a civil servant, her expression stern, her dark hair wound into a tight coil at the nape of her neck. I wanted to sit on one of the wooden chairs lined up by the wall because my legs were still weak from the climb across the col, but the situation seemed to call for standing, so I remained beside Bernard with a French newspaper tucked purposefully under my arm and my battered black briefcase wedged between my feet. The air in the room, just off the platform, was stale with cigarette smoke and the grease of the locomotives. I had to ﬁght to keep from coughing. There were dozens of people in the queue before and behind Suzanne, mostly French it seemed, many likely trying to get to America on their papers, and a few German-looking like me. All of us were adults—as if everyone had sent their children to remote locations for safety months ago, as Suzanne had.
How many people like me, I wondered—stateless, stripped of their citizenship—had come through here? How many thousands or tens of thousands had stood in this room? I had, in my briefcase, identiﬁcation papers, the appropriate visas, and six petitions for my care from French citizens of import. I had examples of my academic work and a letter of promise from an American publisher for my new essays on the Metamorphoses. Few others would have so much support. There had been a demand for my extradition in Paris, and the Gestapo had conﬁscated my apartment and what books and papers I’d left there, but I knew in my blood that the bureaucracy of the war was too great, and my signiﬁcance too negligible, for any record of these transgressions to appear in an office such as this. Nonetheless, in the reality of the moment—the grey despondency of the people trudging forward, the clerk’s unsympathetic expression as she questioned a woman wearing too light a dress for the changing season—I felt frightened. And standing there, my feet throbbing in my shoes, a procession of human bewilderment shuffling along in front of me, I tried to locate what I was seeing, what vision of the future haunted me. I looked to the woman nearest me—in her ﬂoral print dress and cloche hat and smart gloves—and her eyes were full of fear. The man in line behind her—his beard suffering from the lack of a barber—his eyes were also full of fear. I found myself asking of each—what have you done, what might they hold against you? I thought then of that line in Ovid’s poem when Narcissus is at the pool studying his own reﬂection: ‘He fell in love with an insubstantial hope.’ What was our hope? That the disarray of the war neuter our interrogators? That we had now become as insigniﬁcant as we have been made to feel, so that we might slip through the cracks in our nothingness? Standing there in the shared misery of other travellers struggling forward with their papers clenched in their hands, I looked for myself . . . for some version of me . . . or for someone’s eyes to meet mine with a look that said we would be all right. I realized what I was doing with a shock: at that moment, even after being on this earth for ﬁve decades, to still feel empathy most easily in those cases that reﬂect my own? This was a failing. Perhaps the greatest failing of all.
When Suzanne reached the front of the line, Bernard and I joined her. She smiled at the woman on the opposite side of the desk. ‘Buenas tardes,’ Suzanne said and then she gave the name of the capitán we’d been supplied with—Marco. The clerk raised her eyebrows at his name, swivelled on her stool and called out something I couldn’t quite parse to the men stationed at their desks behind her. A few looks were exchanged between the officers—not of the sort that would occur when one is trying to locate a person, but expressions that asked, Who will deal with this? After a minute, a man in a pinstriped suit with a fresh haircut stood up, buttoning his jacket and stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray on another man’s desk as he came toward us. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned, as if he’d grown up on the coast. I immediately wished he was in a recognizable uniform.
‘¿Esteu buscant en Marco?’ he asked. He smoothed his moustache with his thumb and foreﬁnger and looked Suzanne over coldly—her bright lipstick and smart brown dress indicative of Paris, as was her fair hair, her accent, her bearing. He glanced over at Bernard and me, who stood behind her, ragged as refugees, though we’d wiped our shoes, and scrubbed and dried our pant legs at the hotel so our means of entry would appear normal. ‘Français? Allemand?’ he continued.
Suzanne clicked open her purse and presented her papers, and Bernard and I handed ours forward as well. Then Suzanne began as rehearsed—professional, almost impatient. She introduced herself and said, ‘Je parle au nom des ces personnes . . . I am speaking for these individuals . . . We three have transit visas for Spain and papers for America.’ The officer inspected our documents and signalled that we should move aside with him, farther down the counter. When it seemed he was taking too long with our documents, Suzanne put on an air of irritation and asked for his name. He gave it—‘Señor Porras’—without so much as lifting his eyes from our papers. Then he asked Bernard and me to step forward.
Bernard put both hands onto the lip of the counter to steady himself. He’d been ill since Marseilles and was weak from the climb over the mountain. From how he wavered beside me in his loose suit and cap, I suspected that he was running a fever again; his thinness, his gaunt face made him appear like some sort of mirage, not wholly present in the room. Señor Porras regarded Bernard for a minute and then turned to my papers and me. We had hoped to seem innocuous: people whose inﬂuence was limited to small academic or artistic circles, people whose work dealt more with esoteric ideas and less with political ideologies. This was, in truth, the case for Bernard: as a painter he’s less of a revolutionary than most, though both he and Suzanne—whose husband is Bernard’s agent—were part of an anti-fascist circle in Paris, and Bernard was one of six or seven artists I knew whose work the Gestapo had deemed degenerate.
What did I think of then, when Señor Porras was regarding me? Taking stock of my clothes, my face, and my expression? I thought of the briefcase between my feet. Of the manuscript on the Metamorphoses inside it and the notes from my last revision of the Narcissus essay—pages of new ideas dashed off in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the week before I left Paris—shoved into an envelope. I thought of my desire to have this manuscript arrive in safe hands and of the possibility that some German intelligence agent could ﬁnd incriminating ideas in the work, ideas that weren’t there—born solely from his own small-mindedness and his desire to see them.
We had hoped that our transit visas for Spain would be stamped without hesitation, that, at worst, the authorities would run our names against whatever new extradition list they had at the station and, not ﬁnding them, send us on our way. But more and more people were being pulled out of the line; more of the men from the back room were coming out to ﬂip through visas and residency cards and passports. The counter to my right had become crowded, the man closest to me—twenty-something, German-looking, possibly Jewish—had a sheen of sweat on his face, and I wondered if I had the same.
‘Monsieur?’ Suzanne eventually asked.
Porras smiled and held up three of the papers we’d given him. ‘I’m sorry, it’s these transit visas. There’s an issue with them now. All visas issued in Marseilles have been cancelled.’
‘Depuis quand?’ Suzanne asked. She looked toward the men who were still seated at their desks behind the partition as if she hoped that Marco, the man we’d asked for, might somehow be among them. ‘We were told—’
‘Yes, of course,’ Señor Porras shrugged, ‘if you’d arrived last week, two days ago . . .’ He raised his open palms toward his shoulders. ‘But there are new regulations effective yesterday.’ He smiled again so that we could see the spades of his teeth. ‘I’m afraid it’s not for Spain to decide.’
‘Might I speak with you in private?’ Suzanne asked. He laughed, aware that she planned to try to bribe him. There was money stitched into the lining of her dress for this very reason.
‘You can speak freely in front of my fellow citizens,’ he said, waving toward the clerk and the officer beside him and the men in the back, clearly enjoying this show of integrity.
‘May I see the man in charge of the station, then?’ Again Suzanne assumed the impatience of a person with rights.
‘He is not here today, either. Like Marco. I’m afraid I’m in charge at the moment.’
‘When will he be in?’
‘Tomorrow.’ Porras lifted a silver case from his jacket pocket and tipped a cigarette out of it. ‘Do you want to make an appointment with him?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Of course. I just need to know where you’ll be staying. In the meantime, I will keep these.’ Porras gathered our papers together and raised his eyebrows. Then he turned to the clerk behind him. He spoke to her quickly in Spanish and she turned and relayed his message to the men behind her, and one of the men in suits called out ‘Alejandro!’
The German-looking man beside me was still standing at the counter in his nice waterproof coat. The officer he’d been dealing with was consulting now with another officer in the back room. I had to resist the urge to tell him to make excuses: he forgot his bag on the train, his wife was unwell, he must have dropped a paper . . . he was young and strong-looking and I thought he could move quickly, could get way in the confusion. But he knew, and I knew, that such subterfuge was likely to cause more difficulty than adhering to whatever new rules the Vichy government had put in place. Even for people like us.
Suzanne turned to me and Bernard and smiled reassuringly. Bernard, his head low like a dying animal’s, scanned the room for the chair he needed. A minute later a young man in the grey-green uniform of the local cabos walked toward us.
“[A]n intelligent and reflective response to the mysterious and strangely consoling nature of the ordinary. . . . Aislinn Hunter makes the sensory moment meld, almost seamlessly, into the cerebral. . . . Deeply intelligent, finely wrought, this is a novel that deserves to be widely read. And reread.” —The Ormsby Review
“Aislinn Hunter masterfully combines historical and speculative fiction . . . [Hunter] poses weighty, existential questions. Her sensitive, elegant novel portrays historical eras where the good, the enduring, and the worthwhile can vanish, with just a signature on a form. . . . Atmospheric and heady, The Certainties presents a skilled interweaving of subjects—love, loss, memory, personal connections—in settings where, to paraphrase the narrator, there’s ‘so little left it’s almost not worth measuring.’ Lovely albeit sad, the elegiac story holds up a small, flickering light for benighted times. —The Vancouver Sun
“Aislinn Hunter’s latest outing is a study in despair—and in the exquisite, heartbreaking beauty of being alive. . . . The Certainties is a story of loss, both personal and political, shot through with the ordinary wonders of life: the sea, the fresh market olives, the everyday gestures of human kindness. The book is dedicated to Hunter’s late husband, who recently passed away. That grief no doubt contributes to the haunted feel of this story. And to its emotional core: love.” —The Toronto Star
“The Certainties is a wonderful mystery, a masterful piece of storytelling that will grip you the first time you read it, and a work of careful art that will reward you when you read it again. Aislinn Hunter has a novelist’s eye for narrative and a poet’s ear for detail, and she has brought those gifts together in this novel of slow and uncompromising power. In these pages, the very idea of bearing witness is given its rightful place.” —Jon McGregor, Man Booker Prize–nominated author of Reservoir 13, and winner of the Costa Novel Award
“I loved The Certainties. What an elegant, moving book . . . It’s deeply aesthetically enjoyable, page by page, and will stay with me. I’m already recommending it to friends as my new favourite novel.” —Connie Gault, Giller-longlisted author of A Beauty
Praise for Aislinn Hunter’s novel The World Before Us
“A complex, subtle, and utterly haunting meditation on memory, history, and mortality. This book is magnificent.” —Emily St. John Mandel
“A novel of considerable beauty . . . haunting and haunted.” —The Globe and Mail
“[Hunter] writes with crispness, precision and a restrained nod to the poetic . . . a sensitive and melancholy meditation on life, death and the potency of the past. . . . A work of great power.” —The Guardian (UK)
“Hypnotically beautiful.” —Chicago Tribune
“Strange and absorbing. . . . [A] richly imagined novel. . . . I relished her book.” —Penelope Lively, The New York Times Book Review