Review: Certainty. A novel. Madeleine Thien. NY: Little Brown, 2007
Unlike immigration stories coming out of the Latino diaspora, Madeliene Thien’s debut novel, Certainty, doesn’t come with a political or rhetorical motive. For example, the author never labels her Indonesian characters’ ethnicity. It doesn’t matter. Thien’s purpose is simply to tell her story, answering the question “what happens when you die?”, answering, "life goes on."
Japanese occupiers of an Indonesian rubber plantation terrify Ani and Matthew, ten year old best friends. Ani endears herself to the Japanese soldiers by singing a folk song. A gift of an orange or an egg will be the day’s meal. The children slowly starve to death while the adults are put to forced labor. Grim as the setting, Thien has the ability to infect the reader with the children’s powerful love, softening the history.
With the occupiers fleeing the attacking Australians, Matthew witnesses his father’s execution. Matthew’s mother takes him to her relatives on another island. Ani will not see Matthew until he has completed college. Matthew and Ani resume their friendship instantly. Soon enough, they fall into bed and devote days to one another’s company.
Forty of more years on, Matthew and his wife live in Vancouver, British Columbia. Their daughter Gail has been dead a year. Her husband, Ansel, comes to join the suegros in a traditional meal. From here, Thien takes the reader through the story of Ansel’s day in an AIDS clinic, and from there into Ansel and Gail’s courtship and marriage.
If Certainty sounds like a romantic novel from the above, there’s more and it’s not at all disappointing. And yes, it is. Continuing the writer’s investigation of mourning and memory, she has Gail track down Ani’s widowed husband, Sipke, in Netherlands, to learn about Ani and her son, Wideh, whom Sipke considers his own son.
Thien enjoys a book-long tease with her readers. Matthew and Ani come together for that temporada on Sandakan. Matthew returns to Australia then makes his way to Canada. Ani bears a son and goes on about her life first in Jakarta then in Netherlands. So matter of fact just like that! Thien is saving the explanation until the novel’s end. Guess.
Themes like these stand portentously beyond most writer’s reach. That Madeleine Thien endeavors to challenge them is a tribute to her editor, I suppose, who recognizes the sheer writing talent that goes into wonderful paragraphs and turns of phrase. Not just here and there, but throughout the writing. Even when Thien’s not wowing the reader with a tour de force, Thien’s writing is crisp and arresting. A pair of examples.
Ansel looks at a photo he shot of Gail a week after she’s returned from meeting Sipke and learning about her father’s childhood friend:
She had been home from Amsterdam for only a week by then, and they had decided to travel to the southwest coast of Vancouver Island to see friends. On the morning he’d taken this photograph, they had walked along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, stopping to explore the tide pools, to admire red starfish and tightly wound snails. Gail is wearing jeans and a windbreaker, and her hair, now shoulder length, blows lightly around her face. He remembers standing on the rocks, framing her in the camera’s lens, the gentleness of her expression when she looked up to see him.
He has often wondered what dreams she had, if any, what last image accompanied her at the end, away from life, away from consciousness. When he tries to imagine that passage, the ground gives way, he falls with her. 112
Thien enjoys photographic descriptions, but she’s as adept at simile, as seen in Sipke’s boyhood war memory of the pilot who fell from the sky over Ysbrechtum, Netherlands, in 1940:
Above the farmhouse, the parachute floated out from beneath the clouds, it looked like a part of the moon torn away. 227
There we are, the second Tuesday in April, reputedly the cruellest month. I think not. My garden thrives with green miracles, tiny flecks and powders I scattered on the tierra a few weeks ago, and today I see lettuce, carrots, radishes, beans, peas, cilantro, herbs. I needed a romance like Certainty and I got it. See you next week.