Madeleine Thien's stunning debut novel hauntingly retells a crucial moment in history, through two unforgettable love stories. Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries, is haunted by the mystery of her father's Asian past. As a child, Gail's father, Matthew Lim, lived in a Malaysian village occupied by the Japanese. He and his beloved Ani wandered the jungle fringe under the terrifying shadow of war. The war shattered their families, splitting the two apart until a brief reunion years later. Matthew's profound...
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Certainty: A Novel

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Madeleine Thien's stunning debut novel hauntingly retells a crucial moment in history, through two unforgettable love stories. Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries, is haunted by the mystery of her father's Asian past. As a child, Gail's father, Matthew Lim, lived in a Malaysian village occupied by the Japanese. He and his beloved Ani wandered the jungle fringe under the terrifying shadow of war. The war shattered their families, splitting the two apart until a brief reunion years later. Matthew's profound connection to Ani and the life-changing secrets they shared cast a shadow that, later still, Matthew's wife, Clara, desperately sought to understand. Gail's journey to unravel the mystery of her parents' lives takes her to Amsterdam, where she unearths more about this mysterious other woman. But as Gail approaches the truth, Ani's story will bring Gail face-to-face, with the untold mysteries of her own life. Vivid, poignant, and written in understated yet powerful prose, CERTAINTY is a novel about the legacies of loss, the dislocations of war, and the timeless redemption afforded by love.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

A radio commentator, provoked by her longtime boyfriend's affair, travels afar to learn more about a woman who had similarly ruined her parents' marriage. As the story moves between contemporary Vancouver and Amsterdam, wartime Sandakan, and Hong Kong, Melbourne, and Jakarta of the Sixties, we encounter a wide variety of characters and discover that they have in common loss, pain, and affliction caused by war, death, and betrayal. Canadian author Thien writes exquisitely of a moment in each character's life, much as she did in her collection of short stories, Simple Recipes. It's debatable whether a coherent story is developed from these episodes, although one may conclude that Thien herself hopes so with a revealing line from one of the protagonists: "Out of the disparate pieces, let something pure, something true, emerge." While there are some inaccuracies in her sketches of localities, the dialog exudes wisdom and an understanding of life. Commendably, Thien's work avoids clichéd descriptions of sexual fantasies and instead focuses on the emotional and spiritual makeup of its characters. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Victor Or, Vancouver, Surrey P.L. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
In her first novel, Thien (stories: Simple Recipes, 2002) intertwines a straightforward, though bittersweet, contemporary romance between a doctor and a journalist with the more complicated relationships between the journalist's Malaysian father and the two women he loved. Gail, a 39-year-old Vancouver journalist, dies suddenly while working on a documentary about a Canadian prisoner of war in Sandakan, Malaysia, during WWII. Her distraught husband, Ansel, an AIDS doctor, relives the ten years of their life together, particularly the last year, when his brief affair almost caused the marriage to unravel. Also mourning are Gail's parents. On a trip to Amsterdam for her documentary only months before she died, Gail uncovered truths about her parents' lives that helped her reunite with Ansel. Gail's father, Matthew, grew up in Sandakan during the war. After his father, who had collaborated with the Japanese invaders, was murdered, Matthew left Sandakan with his mother. Returning at 18, he fell in love with his old playmate Ani. They planned to marry until she suddenly rebuffed him. He ended up in college in Australia, where he met Clara, who'd come from Hong Kong. They married, moved to Vancouver and began a family. But memories of Ani still haunted Matthew, who knew only that she had a child and lived in Jakarta. In 1957, with Clara's blessing, he went to see Ani. He learned that she had been pregnant with his child when she rejected him to save him from a life in Sandakan where his family was reviled. Matthew spent an afternoon with Ani and their little boy, then returned to Clara without regret. Ani left for Amsterdam. The present-day story, even Gail's death, is overwhelmed by Ani'svibrant drama. The elegant prose and carefully rendered plot are almost too understated to convey the operatic emotions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780759572355
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 3/21/2007
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,415,441
  • File size: 289 KB

Meet the Author

Madeleine Thien’s first book of fiction, Simple Recipes, won four awards in Canada, was a finalist for a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and was named a notable book by the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. Originally from Vancouver, Thien recently moved to Quebec City.
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Read an Excerpt

In what was to have been the future, Ansel rolled towards her, half awake, half forgetful. He curved his body around hers and Gail’s warmth drew him back into sleep. Morning passed into afternoon, the rest of the world waited outside, but he and Gail were just rising from bed, they were fumbling into their clothes, they knew that the day was long.

Some of her work, the tapes and reel-­to-­reel, are in the house. Some in the attic of her parents’ house, and some in her former office. When Ansel listens to them, the finished and the unfinished work, the quality of the recording is fine, as if Gail is in the room herself, her voice preserved on a quarter-­inch strip of tape.

There is a sunroom at the front of the house where Ansel drinks his coffee. Across the street, their neighbour is crouched on the ground, snipping the grass with a pair of scissors. Because of the noise, she says. A lawnmower makes far too much noise. She is in her mid-­sixties and the wide brim of a sun hat shades her face. Gail, who had grown up in a house a block away, once told Ansel that she remembered this same woman snipping the grass when Gail her­self was a child. “All the kids would come with their plastic scissors and help her out. It was a kind of neighbourhood hair­cut.” Every now and then, Mrs. Cho stands up and massages her lower back. She looks over at Ansel seated alone in the window, lifts her hand to him in greeting.

The coffee is warm and sweet. He closes his eyes and drinks it, and when he opens his eyes again, Gail is still there, a presence in the room, the undercurrent of his thoughts.

It is almost seveno’clock. The sun is up, and it pours a warm, golden light across the houses. Last night, he ­couldn’t sleep, and this morning his body feels hollow, a loose string that folds naturally over itself. On the table in front of him, a sheaf of papers: Gail’s radiology report, her ekg chart, the pages creased from too much handling. Outside, the branches of the sakura tree flutter in the wind. The tree blooms in March, and by April the blossoms are so heavy all the branches are weighted down. By May, the yard is a snowbank of petals.

Ansel and Gail bought this house ten years ago, in the early-­1990s. He had just finished his residency, and Gail was working as a radio producer, making features and documentaries. The house is in Strathcona, the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver. Even now, the Hastings Mill cabins, where workers lived a century ago, still stand. Past the bustle of Chinatown, the downtown core floats like a picture hung against the North Shore mountains. East, and the mills are visible, Ballentyne Pier, with its brightly coloured stacks of containers, and the tall freight elevators.

Theirs is a restored Queen Anne, gabled windows on the top floors. A solid, unremarkable house. On windy days, he imagines he can feel the wooden beams of the house swaying.

Previous homes together had been small apartments in basements or attics, the two of them tucked in amongst their belongings. Now there are books and records and an old piano. Gail’s hand-­carved Indonesian box. Ansel’s antique microscope; once, they had spent the afternoon looking at odds and ends. He remembers an onion skin, elegant in its simplicity, the cells stacked together like brickwork.

There is the understanding that she is no longer here, that it was sudden and irrevocable, but this understanding is one moment spread over a thousand hours, a continuous thought that tries to forget itself. And then, when that fails, to bargain, to change everything, to fall asleep and go back to another point in time. “Time,” Gail had said once, as he fell asleep in her arms, “is the only thing we need.”

At Strathcona Elementary School, the Sunday morning tai chi class is already in motion. He can see them through the fence as he walks, grandparents in neon track suits, moving across the pavement in an ensemble, a fluid echo of cause and effect. Bird plucking a leaf from the tree. Hands separating heaven from earth. Gail had listed these off for him. Epic names for the smallest gestures. Together, they step purposefully across the chalk lines for hopscotch and four-­square.

Ansel buys his breakfast at the New Town Bakery, where a woman wearing a blank name tag gives him a paper bag filled with warm bread. He continues through Chinatown, past the tanks of melancholy fish. Vegetables spill out from the markets, and the street lamps, recently painted a festive red, glow in the early morning.

After the service, the flowers had followed her across the city, from Hastings Street to 49th Avenue. The houses giving way to Central Park, giving way to the burial grounds. The workers arranged the tall flower stands in concentric circles around her grave, making a perfumed forest. He walked into it and in the centre he found her. Each night the rain knocked them down, the wind scattered the petals across the cemetery, and every day he set them up again. One afternoon, he arrived in the middle of a storm. He raised the flowers up onto their stands, and they collapsed on top of him. He hugged them to his body and lifted them up once more.

Half a year has gone by since then, but this morning, when he walks along the pebbled road beside False Creek, his thoughts return to that small plot of land and the flowers he laid there yesterday. His friend Ed Carney once spent an entire morning giving Ansel his thoughts on passing time. Time’s arrow pointing in both directions, the past flying into view as you stumble backwards into the future, Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. Ed had mused about scientists who experimented with their circadian rhythms, re-­establishing themselves on a twenty-­six-­hour clock. “Mostly they had the police after them, wondering what trouble they were up to.” The conversation had ended there. Ed had gone back to mowing his lawn, and Ansel had continued walking.

Now he sits on the dock at the creek, the moored boats swaying with the current, and he eats his breakfast. Sunday morning and the city is still sleeping, but she is there beside him, running her feet through the water. That is another timeline, the morning of Gail’s last birthday, fall and not summer. Their last conversation was a telephone call, long distance. His memories struggle to stay afloat, time moves forward, and Ansel feels the divide in his body. One part of him carrying on, living moment to moment, the other part lost to him on the day she died.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2007

    A reviewer

    I came across this novel because of the Kiriyama Prize and I had no idea what to expect. The book has a strange structure, almost like a puzzle, but the characters stayed with me and the story was gripping. I particularly enjoyed the sections set in Asia and Indonesia. Not like anything I've read before. Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2007


    The opening of Canadian writer Madeleine Thien's debut novel, i Uncertainty .i , is one of the most exquisitely crafted passages I have read in a while. Still half-asleep, a man rolls towards his lover. But this is only 'what was to have been the future', and by the end of the passage, as the man sits drinking coffee while the sun rises, you realise that his lover is not there, that she lives only in his memory. Unfortunately, that first passage is pretty much the highlight of the book. What unfolds is a disappointingly hackneyed tale of love lost and secrets revealed, involving the bereaved family of Gail Lim, a radio journalist who persists as an echo among them six moths after her death. As suggested by the title, which refers to one of philosopher Bertrand Russell's more famous maxims - that we need to learn to live without certainty, but without being paralysed by hesitation - Thien has certain theories about time and existence that she wishes to discuss throughout the book. This is fair enough, but she does so at the expense of character development. For example, she has Gail's lover Ansel cheat on her shortly before her death, though it is never convincing why he has an affair. Then there is Gail's father, Matthew, who is haunted by his youth in 1940s and 1950s Borneo, where he left behind a girl named Ani, apparently the love of his life. Again, we are told rather than shown, making it more annoying than tragic when he continues to hold a torch for her even after he meets Gail's mother. The book suddenly improves dramatically two-thirds of the way in as Gail, previously either dead or not yet born, finally takes hold of the narrative on her 39th birthday. The only person who does not seem self-absorbed, she is recovering from the revelation of Ansel's infidelity when she receives news from her friend in Holland that he has managed to crack the code in the diary of a Canadian soldier, whose story is the subject of one of her radio documentaries. Flying to Holland to visit her friend, she decides to make a detour to visit the Dutchman who eventually married Ani, and ends up unravelling her family's very own mystery. But this eleventh hour upswing is not enough to compensate for the fact that most of the characters do not seem to have much of a personality, simply existing as ciphers to deploy in various philosophy-induced scenarios. Abstract and obtuse as they flit through the pages, they resemble nothing so much as code - one you don't really care about cracking anyway.

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