25: Certainty

CertaintyCertainty by Madeleine Thien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (4.5)

From the Fall 2010 VPL Book Sale.

Read in September/October 2013

View all my reviews

This was my favorite book so far this year. I contemplated giving it a 5. Let’s call it 4.5 stars.

Ansel’s significant other Gail died suddenly six months earlier. She was a freelance radio producer. He’s a doctor, works at a TB clinic. He’s still close with her parents, Matthew and Clara. They all live in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood.

Matthew is originally from Sandakan (in North Borneo prior to WWII; now part of Malaysia), which was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, when he was a child. After the war, he and his mother leave Sandakan, and later he goes to Australia to study at the University of Melbourne. There he meets Clara, who grew up in Hong Kong. Together they move to Vancouver, because at the time Canada was accepting Asian immigrants and Australia was not.

Clara has an English degree but ends up starting her own business as a seamstress when she can’t find work as a teacher. Matthew has a history degree but ends up working in a restaurant, becoming a cook.

More 55-cent BooksThe summer before Gail died, Ansel had an affair when Gail was away. He eventually broke it off and told Gail about it. She is not sure why he confessed, how he wants her to react to this information. Now, he finds it hard to believe the affair actually happened.

When Matthew was 18, just before he moved to Melbourne, he returned to Sandakan for a visit, reunited briefly with his childhood friend Ani. While Matthew moves first to Australia and later to Canada, Ani moves to first to Indonesia and later to Holland. Once, Gail sees a letter from Holland in her parents’ home. She doesn’t understand its significance but when she’s in Holland doing research for a story she’s producing, she contacts Ani’s husband Sipke and meets up with him.

Certainty is a non-linear story of family and love and migration. The story moves back and forth through time, slowly revealing information. Relationships are always uneven; one person always loves more. There’s a lot of restraint in the writing. Everything is not spelled out; you need to read between the lines.

Thien’s dialogue—the way that the characters talk about things, real things, not the weather—reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s.

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