Madeleine Thien’s stunning debut novel fulfills all her early promise and introduces a young novelist of vision, maturity, and style.
Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries in present-day Vancouver, finds herself haunted by events in her parents’ past in wartorn Asia, a past which remains a mystery that fiercely grips her imagination.
As a child, Gail’s father, Matthew Lim, wandered the Leila Road and the jungle fringe with his lovely Ani, a girl whose early bond with Matthew will affect his life always. As children, they found themselves together under the terrifying shadow of war in Japanese-occupied Sandakan, Malaysia. The war shatters their families and splits the two apart until years later, when they remeet only to be separated again. The legacy of their connection is later inherited by Matthew’s wife, Clara, in unexpected ways.
Gail’s journey to unravel the mystery of her parents’ lives takes her to Amsterdam, where she meets the war photographer Sipke, who tells his story of Ani and their relationship, which began in Jakarta, a story that will bring Gail face to face with the complications in her own life and lead her closer to the truth.
Vivid, poignant, wise, at once sweeping and intimate, Certainty is a novel about the legacies of loss, about the dislocations of war and the redemptive qualities of love. Thien reveals herself as a novelist of rare and potent talent.
Thien's debut novel draws its meager impetus from the tale of Matthew and Ani, two 10-year-olds in the village of Sandakan in Japanese-occupied Borneo during WWII, whose lyrical idylls buffer them from the horrors of war. Romance blossoms when they reunite eight years later, in 1953, but their past Matthew's dead father collaborated with the Japanese splits them up, sending the secretly pregnant Ani off to Jakarta and Matthew to Vancouver and a marriage (to Clara). Matthew and Ani's saga intertwines with the latter-day story of Matthew and Clara's daughter, Gail, a radio documentary maker, whose cozy but bland relationship is buffeted by an affair and who decides to find out about her father's mysterious past with Ani. Thien (Simple Recipes) uses this narrative as a peg for much elegiac meditation interspersed with muzzy reflections on fractals, code breaking and snowflake formation her metaphor for the minute contingencies that shape human motivation. Her prose is poised but wan, and the patchwork story, despite jolts of tragic history, doesn't elicit much interest in her characters or their roads not taken.