Book Reviews

Certainty by
Madeleine Thien

McClelland & Stewart, Canada; Little, Brown & Co., USA

At its most essential, Canadian writer Madeleine Thien’s resonant, richly textured first novel, Certainty, explores questions of how possible it is to know another person, even a person we love, and how to live with that uncertainty.

Beginning in present-day Vancouver with Ansel, a physician wracked with grief and guilt after the untimely death of his 39-year-old partner, Gail, Certainty unfolds through overlapping narratives that follow twining streams of memory to North Borneo during the brutal Japanese occupation of the 1940s to Jakarta in the 1960s, to the Netherlands and back to Vancouver. Thien’s characters are people with pasts complicated—or, in some cases, nearly annihilated—by war and its dislocations and, in the second generation, by the reverberations of war. There are holes in these characters’ lives—mysteries, secrets, infidelities—and with each change in view, one hole is mended while another tears open. Many seek to understand their lives and connect with others through the beautiful ambiguities of art, others through the sureties of science.

In the final year of her life, for example, sound documentarian Gail Lim, whose early death stands at the center of this outpouring of memory, works obsessively to complete a radio documentary about a soldier who kept a secret diary while being held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. At the same time she seeks to resolve the mystery of her father Matthew, who grew up in East Malaysia and saw the father whom he deeply loved executed for being a Japanese collaborator. The ageing, alcoholic former-POW cannot remember the key to decode his diary. And Matthew can hardly bear to face his past, especially his memories of a friend, Ani, an orphaned girl who became first his soulmate and then his lover. "Sometimes the past cannot be made right," he tells his daughter, "not every experience [can be] made to fit."

While there is about Certainty a meditative, elegiac air, Thien develops her scenes with such startling, sensual, almost dream-like clarity that readers will occasionally experience a thrill similar to "the moment of revelation" when Gail first puts on earphones and discovers "details she had never heard in life." Thien’s expression is intimate and thoughtful, rather than political; we hear her characters’ ruminations almost as our own thoughts. This is the wellspring of our deepening empathy for her characters and of our understanding of their lives. 

But not all the mysteries of Thien’s characters remain unresolved. Traveling to Holland to meet the mathematician who has cracked the POW’s code and unlocked the meaning of his wartime diary, Gail also meets the Dutch war photographer who eventually married Ani and who now helps her decode some of the mysteries of her father’s life.

It is of this photographer that Gail asks the book’s central question: to what degree can we know another human being? "Understand, yes. But to know another person," the photographer replies. "Think of knowing like beauty. The lines we see are clear, we can trace them in minute detail. But the depth that emerges is still mysterious. How to explain why it reverberates in our minds? When we know another person, I think it is just as mysterious. Knowing another is a kind of belief, an act of faith."

In Certainty, Madeleine Thien does not offer certainties, but rather the lines and details, mysteries and reverberations of human life.

Reviewed by Alden Mudge