Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: Certainty by Madeleine Thien

(Older review originally published in The Compulsive Reader)

If it is true as some literary critics have declared that there are only so many possible stories to be told--a fixed number of general forms in which details and specifics may change but the general shape ( boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc.) remains the same, it poses something of a dilemma for the modern story teller. If all the stories have been told, told over and over again, how is the ‘novelist come lately’ to find something new to say, something original enough to get the attention of all those readers who have most certainly heard it all before? How does one avoid simply repeating what has already been done with different names in different places?

For many budding authors faced with this problem, the solution lies less with the content of their story, than with the shape into which they mold it. What they tell you may be well worn or time honored, as the case may be, but they way they tell you that story will be new and original. As early as the ancient Greeks, writers, knowing how familiar their audiences were with the tales they were telling, were already concerned with the way their stories were told. Aristotle, in the Poetics, sets forth the classic form for the portrayal of a story’s action. It has, he says, a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is that which requires nothing come before it. The end is that which requires nothing come after it. The middle is that which follows from the former and leads inevitably to the latter. Aristotle is after all nothing if not your model for common sense. But even as he was laying down the law in the Poetics, he was well aware that the actual story tellers were playing fast and loose with the structure–their middles, their ends, their beginnings--of their plots. They were starting with their hero sulking away from the battle, rather than with how the whole war began. They had their hero awaiting the return of a messenger from an oracle with the solution to the problem, before explaining what the whole problem was. The action of a story may well have a beginning, but as early as the Greeks, it was clear that it was not necessary that the one telling the story absolutely start with that beginning. And this before there was any such thing as a novel.

Genesis my well start in the beginning, but there is no reason that a writer can’t start somewhere else and return to the beginning at some other time, start with something perhaps more interesting, perhaps more important. Later the reader can be caught up with all that he needs to know. The author can do this all at once. She can do it in dribs and drabs limiting what the reader knows and when he knows it, and thus creating mystery and suspense. There may be something artificial about telling a story in this fashion, but isn’t art what story telling is all about?

All this is not meant to imply that Madeleine Thien’s debut novel Certainty is a stale rehash of a much told tale. It is simply to say that her story, like all stories, is a variation on a basic universal pattern. A boy and a girl are friends in childhood. They are separated, meet again years later, and fall in love only to be separated once again. Over the years, both are tormented by what might have been, and their torment affects all those around them, but when they meet again they realize that their time has passed. While it is no doubt unfair to reduce the many facets of Thien’s novel to such a bare bones outline, such a formula illustrates that it is the way she tells the story that sparks with originality, rather than the story she tells.
Certainty begins with “chaos.” In Vancouver, Gail Lim, a Chinese radio producer born in Canada, has died unexpectedly of cancer. Although some months have passed, her lover, a heart specialist, and her parents are still in deep mourning. Thien moves back and forth from the present to the past, narrating little snippets to show relationships and indicate how they develop.
Very quickly, the reader finds himself in North Borneo (modern day Malaysia) in 1945. World War II is winding down and the Japanese occupiers of the island are evacuating. A young boy of ten and a girl a few months older are wandering around in the war torn devastation. The boy is Matthew, the son of a Chinese plantation manager who has been collaborating with the enemy. He will grow up to be Gail’s father. The girl is Ani. She will become the love of his life, despite the fact that he will marry another.

Thien does not simply shuttle the reader back and forth between Matthew’s past and modern day Canada. Instead she moves apparently randomly over the more than fifty years of the story focusing on moments of time, incidents past and present not only in the lives of Matthew and Gail, but in a variety of other characters all affected by as well as affecting them: Clara, Matthew’s wife; Anselm, Gail’s lover; Ani, Matthew’s lost love; Sipke, the man Ani marries. Each adds a little piece of information, another insight that gradually fleshes out the whole of the story much like the separate tiles in a mosaic coalescing to create a picture.

Thien provides her own model for her method when she describes the way Gail works on her radio scripts: “In radio, in the countless scripts that she has written, Gail works in the belief that histories touch. Follow the undercurrent and you will arrive at the meeting place. So she weaves together interviews, narration, music and sound in the hope that stories will not be lost in the chaos of never touching one another, never overlapping in any true way. Each element a strand, and the story itself a work of design. Out of the disparate pieces, let something pure, something true, emerge.” Her formal choices, then, are not simply arbitrary nor are they merely for the sake of suspense; there is presumably a design, meaning in what seems like chaos.

Indeed the need to find design and meaning in the chaos that is human life may well be the glue that hold all the different strands of her story together. Life is a search for the truth, for the Certainty of truth. It is a quest that each of the characters in the book must make, each in his or her own way. Matthew and Ani must find out, after all the years that have passed, the truth about their feelings for each other. Clara must find out how much of Matthew is still tapped in the past. Gail must find out both the truth about her father and whether she can put complete trust in a relationship with Anselm. And what she discovers, what they all discover is that trust in a person one loves is an act of faith. Is it possible to know another person, she asks of Sipke who she meets late in the novel. His answer: “Think of knowing like beauty. The lines that we see are clear, we can trace them, study them in minute detail. But the depth that emerges is still mysterious. How to explain why it reverberates in our minds? When we know another person, I think it is just as mysterious. Knowing another is a kind of belief, an act of faith.” Love is an act of faith.

Not the least significant part of Thien’s mosaic is the multiplicity of settings from the rubber plantations of Malaysia to the streets of Jakarta. Hong Kong, Vancouver, the Netherlands, all provide her with a rich multi-cultural canvas for her eclectic cast of characters. She is able to invest her story with all kinds of fascinating exotica. There is the Indonesian creation myth about a bird that foments a quarrel between the sea and sky. There is the fisherman who rolls over the side of his boat into the water so he can listen for the sounds of the fish. Each species, he says, has its own sound. There is the Chinese mother burning squares of paper with pieces of gold foil at the center at the grave of her daughter to help pay her way through the other side. There are the whales following a Russian ice breaker through the Bering Strait to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” There is the description of the road to Schokland in the Netherlands, a road that was once the bottom of the sea. Such elements give the novel a rewarding textual richness that more than complements the story itself. They add a colorful background to her mosaic.

Certainty is a novel with something to say, and it says it with originality. Madeleine Thien speaks with an infectious vitality coupled with a powerful artistry that keeps the reader involved both emotionally and intellectually. .

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