Certainty by Madeleine Thien

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Certainty by Madeleine Thien

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: In the aftermath of the sudden death of radio documentary producer her family and lover are provoked into an exploration of memory that takes us from the Second World War in British North Borneo to modern-day Vancouver, via Australia and the Antarctic and northern Europe. It is a tale of love and loss and the search for a certainty about the past as well as hope for the future. Beautifully told, but structurally uncertain.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571234165

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Gail Lim was in the midst of bringing an unravelling of a mystery to life, when she died.

As a producer of radio documentaries, she had been given a diary in which nothing was written but endless lists of numbers. It clearly dated from the wartime prison camps and if the code could be found, who knows what would be learned.

There is nothing sinister in her death, however. A simple pneumonia. But she dies suddenly and away from home, which makes it hard for those who love her: her parents and her long-time lover.

In the aftermath of her death, these people remember her - and the memories of Gail, spark off other memories and so tales unwind which take us from Vancouver to British North Borneo in the last days of the second world war, through the troubles of Indonesia, to Holland, Australia, and back to Canada.

Ansel, her husband, remembers his Gail - found in Australia and brought to Canada. He remembers her warmth and her laughter, and his own infidelity, and the distance that grew between them, and their moves to regain what they had lost... what he has lost now forever.

Matthew, her father remembers his childhood... the war in North Borneo, his father's part in it and the implications of that for everyone. He remembers his childhood love, and his seeking her out afterward... and again the implications of that.

Clara follows her own memories from Kowloon and the trail that has led her here to Vancouver, where she grieves over her lost daughter with her husband and the man she thinks of as a son.

This is not a love story. It is a weaving of love stories. Love surviving, love struggling, love lost. It is passionate and beautiful. Thien has a lyrical way with language that is an enveloping pleasure to read. She can draw you into a place and a time and leave you stranded there, a helpless observer, knowing what must now happen.

And yet... it doesn't quite work.

The stories - all of them: Ansel & Gail's; Matthews; Clara's; the O'Sullivan diary - are good strong narratives and they weave together well. They could be true. They draw out slowly, but occasionally take abrupt turns, as life has a tendency to do.

The characters - Ansel and Matthew in particular, but also Ani (from Matthew's past) and Gail herself and those she discovers in Holland - are all finely drawn. They are believable people, people for whom one feels sympathy and hope and its lack.

The sense of time & place - Thien captures the essence of each her environments succinctly and effectively from the expanse of Holland's wetlands to the confines of a jungle bomb-crater. She has a eye for detail that transforms the everyday into significance.

The theme - the search for wisdom and the 'certainty' of the title - underlies every episode. The ever-present search we all make to understand where we come from, and the often-resultant desire that it could have been other than it was, without the realisation that had it been, we might not be, is never openly expressed but emerges with thought-provoking clarity.

Where the novel falls down is structurally. There is always a danger trying to tell a tale in flashback... trying to tell several tales in multitudes of memory... and doing so always in the present tense... simply results in confusion. Thien well-captures the individual 'voice' of each of her narrators, but whenever you switch from one to another, from one perspective to another (often across generations and gender), as a reader you are "stopped". You are required to refocus, think differently, recap to remember whose voice this in, and when (therefore) you are. Even within individuals the memories do not surface sequentially ~ they are triggered by external events and by other recollections. This is all very real, obviously. It is the way we think. But it does not make for easy reading.

Thien is a beautiful writer. I hope her next novel is more simply structured, because I believe she could also be a very powerful one.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

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Buy Certainty by Madeleine Thien at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Certainty by Madeleine Thien at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Certainty by Madeleine Thien at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Certainty by Madeleine Thien at Amazon.com.


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