by Madeleine Thien
320 pages,
ISBN: 0771085133

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Review of Certainty
by Nancy Wigston

Certainty by Madeleine Thien (McClelland & Stewart, 320 pages, $32.99, cloth, ISBN: 0771085133). Certainty weaves a tapestry of memories into one heartbreaking, intellectually stimulating whole. A young woman has died; her family is in mourning, especially her doctor husband who is left not only to question his inability to save his globetrotting wife but also to live with the guilt of having betrayed her sexually in the year before she died. Gail and Ansel had reconciled, but the fear and suspicion caused by his affair took its toll. When a woman not yet forty succumbs to an infection, one cannot help wondering why.
Yet Gail and Ansel's marriage is only the first tier of a multiplicity of puzzles. Gail's father, Matthew, is a man frequently lost in memories of his North Borneo childhood during the unspeakable Japanese occupation. His boyhood friendship with a little girl named Ani becomes his only anchor in this disintegrating world. Yet Matthew betrays Ane¨albeit unknowingly¨as his own father betrayed his community by collaborating with the occupiers. In Vancouver, Gail's mother tries to help her husband; her memories of scenes from her own Hong Kong childhood are stitched into the narrative pattern of failures-to-save.
This sounds awfully bleak, but in fact the novel is solid, even thrilling. Besides the gift of Thien's clear, honest prose, there are the discoveries she unfolds for the characters as she shifts the narrative from present to past. She also changes landscape, moving the reader from Canada, to war-torn, then post-war Indonesia, and on to present-day Holland. Ultimately we learn about the mysteries that absorbed Gail, a documentary filmmaker. She had travelled to Amsterdam to crack the code used by a Canadian POW in a diary. The man who kept the diary in Hong Kong remained a puzzle to his children, as Matthew had been a puzzle to his daughter. "Do you think it's possible to know another person?" Gail asks, not her code-master friend, but an older Dutch man, who happens to be the missing link to the little girl from her father's youth. This brainy, intriguing book reveals not only a myriad of mysteries but also Madeleine Thien's major talent.

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