Certainty – Madeleine Thien

Mesmerized with Madeleine Thien’s collection of short stories, “Simple recipes”, I couldn’t wait to start reading “Certainty”, her debut novel.  She is one of those rare writers who write because of the language, the art, and not because of the ‘plot’, the fast-moving storyline.


Her storyline melts into her silky language, so it’s not as though you’re reading a ‘story’, it’s more like you’re reading literature. This is one those novels that I wish I could write; I covet to possess the ability to intrigue readers from the simplest and plainest stories out there by mesmerizing them with the “clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity.” ( – Alice Munro) It feels like reading someone’s thoughts on a Sunday afternoon when there’s nothing to do and words just come naturally and easily as though she didn’t even try at all. It feels like walking along a breezy seashore and let it come to me instead of sitting down and trying to finish a book.


A flash of envy passed me when Thien captured Vancouver rain in a paragraph, the kind of rain I tried so hard to describe on my blogs but failed, the kind of rain that’s redolent of feelings and emotions: “Today, the rain is steady, clinging to the buildings, tipping down the leaves of the trees. In Vancouver, there are many varieties of rain, but the most common, he believes, is the kind that tries to convince you it isn’t there, the kind that is so thin it makes the windshield wipers squeak.” It’s thin and subtle because of the soft, dainty, stingy droplets that covers the city in grey and darkness; it’s thin and unnoticeable because the people walking in that rain are busy thinking of something else, somewhere else and forget all about the rain. Suddenly through her words, rain comes alive, sad, lonely and somehow like a place of privacy deep in my heart.


I adore Thien’s writing not just because she brought the rain I know and love closer to my heart, but also because the way she creeps inside my mind without me even noticing. Other writers throw an anecdote or a quote at me and I know right then he’s trying to make a point. But Thien does it magically and quietly, hiding those thoughts behind the scenery, behind the character’s stories and thoughts. It’s like lying on the grass one warm day and drift away in thoughts while watching those clouds pass by, like dreaming but thinking clearly. “When he awoke, he wondered whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly. Or if, perhaps, he was a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.” Within her writing, scenes and snapshots merge into one big picture. People and stories come together under the same name, be it “Vancouver” or “Sandakan” or “Ysbrechtum”. And all these different places, even those I have never heard of before and cannot imagine what they are like, dissolve into just one strip of time and flow of feelings. Pictures alone can’t answer anything, “people look at that picture now, in magazines and books, and they speculate about it. They don’t know what happened before or after. All they see is this one moment, disconnected from the past or the future. It feeds their imagination, but it doesn’t give them knowledge.” But Thien makes everything clearer and purer without giving into to dry, plain narration. I was not surprised about this when I read “Certainty”; she mastered this ability since “Simple Recipes”.


Sometimes I think of the novel as a photograph, with the main subject focused and sharp in the center, and the background vivid but toned down, like stepping down to shine the spotlight on the main subject. Then suddenly the lens changes direction and focuses on something far far behind, and who seemed like the protagonist, the main player, becomes secondary and complementary. Thien does this nine times, focusing on nine stories or characters at different times and spaces, jumping back and forth to capture a panorama like no other. Ansel’s longing of Gail after her death, Matthew’s grief when his father died,  Ani’s love, Clary’s brave decision to let Ansel return to Sandakan, Sipke’s passions and empathy to war, and so on, all came together in a complex net of human relationships. The big picture is just simply a family tree or connections, “from far away, I can accept everything.” But Thien’s sensitivity and understandings brought about different perspective so brilliantly it became more than just a photograph or story. “Up close, right here, is where you feel pain, grief. Right here, there are some things that [people] can never be at peace with.


By doing that, Thien also sacrificed some of her “wholesome-ness” , the right “ending” or “note” to encapsulate everything into one. In her short stories in “Simple recipes”, the last detail is often the longest and most glowing image. The stories are not exactly ‘finished’, but always complete. The characters may still be lost, but they are done and fulfilled. But in “Certainty”, I still feel a bit of “uncertainty”, like something’s missing; a bit more sorrow or guilt, resent or bitter, a bit of flavour and attention-grabbing moment; perhaps an epiphany or enlightenment, or a point of realization. Something in “Simple Recipes” is missing in “Certainty”, something special and memorable. She just missed the spotlight somewhere, because the photos are no longer sharp and focused at one point, but scattered, undefined.


But her writing is undeniably spectacular, maybe because she wrote it in a language we could all understand. It’s the language that “never do you forget“, no matter where you travel or work, “the language in which your mother loved you.



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