Certainty – Madeleine Thien (2)


I realized that I liked this book more after my second time reading it. A year ago I gave it three stars, feeling that it didn’t live up to “Simple Recipes”, but I’ve changed my mind after spending another month re-reading the story. That rarely happens to me, but in this case, Madeleine’s beautiful writing became even clearer and more intricate after I revisited the book. I felt like I was reading an entirely new novel, with new depth and dimensions of emotions unfolding themselves within Thien’s prose-like story of love, redemption, war and forgiveness. 

Thien writes some of my favorite lines in fiction. There is something soft, calm, reassuring, precious, yet sentimental, sad and vulnerable about the lines that she writes. Her words are so gentle that I let my guard down and believe that her stories are nice and quiet, yet when I’ve already indulged peacefully in the smoothness of the words, she captures my heart with terrible stories of loss. When Thien opens her novel with the beautiful scene of Ansel slowly waking up next to Gail; their intimacy and calmness mislead me into thinking about how happy this tale would be; little did I know that as the story unravels, the sorrow and quiet sufferings of the characters in this book is nothing alike the opening.

However, unlike the typical melodramatic novel, “Certainty” does not call for attention to the brutality and gruesomeness of war. It concentrates on the sentimental and personal emotional journey that follows the devastating scenes of war. Images of the dead and captured appear sporadically in the background; only once, when Matthew’s father was murdered, was the dead addressed in detail. For most of the novel, it is the people’s thoughts, emotions and decisions that depicted the loss and sadness of those whose lives were stained so deeply by the fighting and killings. 

Just like in “Simple Recipes”, Thien writes with an astonishing emotional purity and calmness. Emotions suddenly appear clear and mature, rather than impulsive and turbulent. That is where the feeling of solace and compassion comes from. Thien provides her readers with sympathy and strength in dealing with sorrowful subjects, especially in grieving for the deceased. “Do you think there’s a biological purpose to grieving?”, Thien writes, “I guess it’s to keep us alive somehow.” 

I also felt “Certainty” was like metaphysical poem. Thien brings in topics from biology, astronomy, history, photography and cryptography for her metaphors on life and suffering. “Perhaps you are asking too much of a picture”, Ani said to Sipke, a photographer and painter. But was Ani only talking about Sipke’s work, or was she talking about life and choices? Perhaps we are asking too much of our choices, when in many cases we could only do the best we can. And when Jaarsma tries to explain the Mandelbrot Set to Gail, he says, “The boundary encloses a finite area, but the boundary itself is infinite. No matter how much we increase the magnification, the same shapes appear and reappear in the border, though never quite the same.” Perhaps life is like that too; it’s difficult to analyze correctly an event, or emotion, or time of our lives, because all of them contain more events, more emotions. 

And one of my favorite lines I’ve ever read about Vancouver was from this novel: “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 […]” If you’ve ever been to Vancouver, you would know how much it rains, days and nights and months and seasons. But perhaps the rain is just trying to hide away in the background, like a quiet child trying to escape from adult’s scrutiny and scoldings. 

In the end, though, I would have liked if Thien ended the novel a chapter shorter. The resonance of Ani and Sipke’s life would have been a beautiful and happy ending. Returning to Vancouver in the last chapter about Gail and Matthew seems a bit redundant. It is certainly not a book of fast-paced plot and compelling storyline; its beauty lies in the expressions and style of writing that Madeleine Thien is praised for.