CERTAINTY by Madeleine Thien (McClelland & Stewart), 314 pages, $32.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Expectations were high for Vancouver-born, Quebec City-based Madeleine Thien's first novel. Her book of short stories, Simple Recipes, won four awards in Canada and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize. Delightfully, Certainty's got the goods.
A layered and multi-generational rumination on grief, the novel builds steadily, told from the perspective of multiple characters, connecting secrets from the past to the present. The narrative goes back and forth through time and travels the globe - from Vancouver to Indonesia and Holland.
The book begins quietly, introducing the reader to each character - mother Clara, father Matthew and husband Ansel - as they deal with the death of Gail, a producer of radio documentaries who died suddenly on a research trip. Gail's vibrant personality and adventurous spirit come to life in snippets of memory, dialogue with her research subjects and descriptions of her impact on each character. It's as though a tender eulogy for her is woven through the entire text.
Before Gail's death, Ansel, a caring physician in a Vancouver TB clinic, had come clean to her about an affair. Then, after a period of uncertainty, their marriage got back on track.
Gail was beginning to uncover carefully kept secrets related to her grandfather's mysterious death. The young Matthew watched his father die in Japanese-occupied Sandakan just days before the end of the second world war.
The novel unravels this specific mystery but leaves other more existential questions unanswered in a dreamy, philosophical subtext as the characters search for certainty.
Thien's ability to weave scientific observations into dialogue is particularly strong, capturing the way people - specifically the cerebral and contemplative lot who populate this novel - deal with the bewilderment of bereavement.