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Certainty

by Madeleine Thien

As I read Madeleine Thien’s first novel, I was reminded time and again of Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, another work set largely in Canada but taking as its canvas the memories and unresolved legacies of the Second World War. There is a huge difference in tone between the novels – Michaels’ feels carved out of solid dark mahogany, while Thien’s is like an airy house on stilts – but both employ science and the natural world as metaphors to explore the mysterious human layers of memory, loss, and love.

Thien’s story begins in Vancouver, with a doctor named Ansel mourning the sudden death of his young wife, Gail, a radio documentary producer. Gail, we learn, is the only child of Matthew and Clara, Chinese immigrants (she from Hong Kong, he from North Borneo) who had met up after the war in Australia. But Australia, although willing to allow Asians in as students, would not in that period accept them as potential immigrants, so Canada became their home.

At the time of her death, Gail is working on a radio piece about a Canadian soldier who had kept a diary in code during his years as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese in Hong Kong. By the 1960s, when the soldier finally shows the diary to his family, he has forgotten his method of encryption. Deciphering the book’s messages had become one of Gail’s obsessions. Wiping out the past, then rediscovering it and making sense of it, is what Certainty is all about.

There are so many pasts in this novel, so many secrets. There is Ansel’s clandestine affair, which casts an anxious shadow over his marriage to Gail. There is, for Clara, the long-ago horror of seeing a boy fall off a Hong Kong rooftop onto the sidewalk in front of her. Largest of all, there is Matthew’s childhood in British North Borneo (now East Malaysia), where his special friendship with an orphaned girl named Ani helps stave off the terror of Japanese troops all around his home and community.

Matthew’s father is a collaborator with the Japanese, and the boy witnesses his father’s postwar fate (and that of many collaborators): a bullet to the brain. Matthew and Ani feel safest, paradoxically, in the bowl of a vast crater created by mortar fire: “The bottom of the crater curved up like a boat, a hollow in which he and Ani could rest.”

Separated at war’s end, Matthew and Ani rediscover each other a few years later, and their relationship takes a more adult turn. But Matthew knows he cannot make a future in a place that still remembers his father’s treachery, so he leaves for Australia and his new life. Ani surfaces in Jakarta with her small son, Wideh, and makes a living in a photographer’s darkroom, coaxing images out of chemicals. Her Dutch friends in Indonesia are repatriated to Holland: the Dutch East Indies have ceased to exist.

Family members, communities, and whole countries disappear. Life goes on. “On the hillside overlooking Sandakan, there had once been hundreds of crosses and markers to remember the dead. Later, these graves were cleared to make room for new houses.” Allied planes lie side by side with Japanese battleships on the ocean floor. At the end of the novel, when Gail goes to Holland seeking answers to her family’s mysteries, she walks over a reclaimed section of sea in Flevoland: “They found shipwrecks from the middle ages, as old as the twelfth century. In the 1960s, they uncovered Allied planes shot down during the war.” On all sides of the world, apparently, the detritus of loss.

Thien has a tendency to put complicated scientific ruminations into the mouths of all her characters, whether or not their level and type of education lend plausibility to these observations. On the other hand, she is a brilliant creator of images. There are purely sensual ones, such as this: “The harbour was crowded with boats again, with prahus and steamers; on windy nights, their hulls knocked together like a great wooden chime.”

There are also unforgettable human images, such as Thien’s description of the photo of an elderly woman kneeling in the dirt before an open grave with a photo in her hand, paired with this text: “For thirty-five years, I did not know where he lay. Now I know, and all my hopes are here, they will not wake again.”

There is unbearable sadness here, and yet there is hope as well. Thien’s message, an ancient one, is that the truth will set you free. Reaching certainty about what happened in the past will not make the present and future more certain, but it will make “the indefinite, the uncertain hereafter” a more bearable, more human place.