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Certainty

by Madeleine Thien
312 pages,
ISBN: 0771085133


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Uncertainty
by Richmond Wong

Certainty demonstrates why this remarkable Quebec City writer has earned the praise lavished on her since her 2001 fiction debut, a collection of short stories entitled Simple Recipes. A complex meditation on mortality, bereavement, and the slow journey towards reconciliation, Certainty is shot through by Thien's rare talent for channelling raw, palpable emotion in her delicate, lucid prose. Her wisdom in recognising that sometimes there can be no magical salve for some of life's deepest wounds¨save for time¨is also what makes Certainty such a moving experience. Alice Munro pays Thien no small compliment: "A splendid writer. I am astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity."
The novel opens in medias res, with Ansel, a doctor, rolling over in bed, hoping to find the comforting shape of his dead wife, Gail. Alas, only empty air greets his searching caresses. Later, as the doctor weaves his way through Vancouver's Chinatown, the narrative slips seamlessly into the past¨from his observations of vendors hawking fresh vegetables and "tanks of melancholy fish" to Gail's funeral service six months earlier. From there we are returned to the present as he sits by the waterfront eating his breakfast. These back and forth shifts in time from occur throughout the novel. They are meant to contrast the overwhelming despondency of the present with the happiness of the past, and to show who Ansel once was, who he could have been, and who he is now.
Ansel arrives for lunch at the home of his parents-in-law, Matthew and Clara. Gail's parents, like so many hardworking immigrants, had sacrificed their former quality of life so that they could secure a better future for the next generation. Both graduates of the University of Melbourne, Matthew has a degree in history, but works in Canada as a cook, and Clara, once a schoolteacher's assistant in Hong Kong, is now a seamstress. However, the forfeiture of the couple's old standard of living eventually payed off for their children: at the time of her death, Gail was a respected radio journalist and her last assignment entailed the deciphering an encrypted diary kept by a former prisoner of war, William Sullivan.
Just as the search for truth often involves asking the right questions and carefully piecing together bits and pieces of information, in Certainty truth or the accurate reconstruction of the past requires the weaving of separate but intersecting histories into a dense narrative that takes us from Vancouver, to North Borneo, Hong Kong, Australia, Indonesia and the Netherlands.
We learn that Matthew spent his childhood and adolescence in the town of Sandakan, North Borneo, with his best friend and lover, Ani. As a child, he watched as his father¨a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers¨was repaid with a bullet in the head. To escape the stigma attached to the family name, Matthew reluctantly left North Borneo and Ani, to study in Australia. There he met his future wife, Clara.
Ani later moved from North Borneo to Jakarta, settling finally in the Netherlands with her husband Sipke, a photojournalist. The memory of Matthew, however, never left her, and she, in turn, continued to haunt her old flame. Gail finally learns about Matthew's past not from her parents¨who are deliberately tight-lipped about it¨but from an old letter sent by Sipke informing Matthew of Ani's passing. On the pretext of travelling to the Netherlands to obtain more information about Sullivan's diary, Gail meets with Sipke to find out what her parents refuse to tell her about Matthew's painful past.
As she had feared, the diary "awaken[s] a memory that has no consolation." Gail discovers how difficult it was for her father to be in Canada, separated from Ani: "He could not sleep and began to disappear from the house at night. When he came home, exhausted, ill, he said that he wanted to return to Australia, to Malaysia, that he had underestimated how difficult this country would be. He had been mistaken, he said, to believe that he could start over, leave Sandakan and all that happened there behind." Matthew "came apart like a string unraveling."
Certainty eschews a linear chronology, relying instead on a remarkably intricate structure that makes knowledge of one story crucial for understanding another. Sometimes a key event is one that occurred many years ago in a far away place.
It is in the moments of discovery and contemplation that Thien works her magic. This is especially evident in her gift for breaking down very complex, very nebulous ideas into passages the reader can understand. For example, Gail goes about her life and work with "the belief that histories touch. Follow the undercurrent and you will arrive at the meeting place. So she weaves together interviews, narration, music and sound in the hope that stories will not be lost in the chaos of never touching one another, never overlapping in any true way. Each element a strand, and the story itself a work of design. Out of the disparate pieces, let something pure, something true, emerge. Let it remain there, visible."
Sprinkled throughout the text are pithy aphorisms that address the most painful aspects of life. Clara, meeting her son-in-law in the cemetery to lay flowers at Gail's grave, realises that as devoted as he is to her daughter, "one cannot live in the past." But for Ansel it isn't easy to get over the devastating loss of Gail. As much as he wants to forget her and move on, he also desperately wants to remember. Ed Carney, Ansel's retiree neighbour, is also a widower. He explains to the doctor the purpose of mourning: "Grief is the time when you ask all the questions. If you don't find some way to answer them, you won't go on living." Later, in that same conversation, Ed concedes that he still mourns his dead wife: "From far away, I can accept everything . . . but up close, right here, is where you feel pain, grief." Even for someone as astute as Ed (we are told he is full of bits and pieces of esoteric knowledge), there is no solution for coping with loss.
So how is anguish dealt with in Certainty? Are any answers to be found in the novel? Perhaps. There is no tried and true way to let go of grief. There is no button that can be pushed to automatically erase memories of loved ones. Thien's novel reminds us that uncertainty is the only certainty there is when it comes to the impermanence of life. "Time is the only thing we need," Gail says. In other words, for healing pain, time is the only thing we have. ˛
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