When Madeleine Thien appeared at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, she spoke of her desire to depict “multiple solitudes”. So evocative was that phrase that her novel “Certainty” was added to the TBR before she had finished her sentence.
The exotic cover brings to mind Lloyd Jones’s “Mister Pip” and there are thematic links also. The devastation of wartime experience and the resulting isolation of the survivors. But while the tone of “Mister Pip” swings from childish to savage in a breathe, Thien’s work is altogether more elegant and graceful.
Matthew was raised during WWII in Japanese-occupied Borneo. His family survived those years through the collaboration of his father. Though retribution was to follow when the war was lost. The loss of his family, his homeland and his childhood sweetheart leave their mark, yet Matthew is fortunate enough to find a woman willing to “take a share of his grief” by becoming his wife. Together they emigrate to Canada and raise their daughter, Gail.
Forty years later Gail’s partner Ansel faces his own unexpected solitude; his grief intensified by his conscience – as a medical man could he have done more?
Gail is a producer of radio documentary. Fascinated by her parents’ war-torn past, she begins an assignment that takes her to Amsterdam and a photographer who lived in Asia just after the war. In relating his experiences and his grief for his wife (recently deceased) and her son (now grown, living on the other side of the planet), he sheds more light on Matthew’s past than he realises.
Not that Matthew’s past is of overarching importance. Matthew’s history is just one of many focal points in a very ambitious novel: 4 narrators, 4 time zones, 4 decades, 4 love stories. All written with the elegance I expected of her “multiple solitudes”.
Unfortunately the individual narrative voices are indistinct. Thus does everything blend into a montone. No, let me rephrase that …. Thus is everything suffused with a pervasive sadness. Something which is quite appropriate to the truthful yet non-cheerful certainty forming the basis of Thien’s novel.
Which brings me to the author’s insistence on switching narrator and jumping in time without signalling her intentions. Should I interpret this as a) a device emphasising the inevitable commonality of human experience, regardless of time or space or b) a structural weakness? Not sure, but the only certainty in continually disrupting my readerly flow and, thus my enjoyment, is that this novel is destined not to become a favourite. I would have much preferred Thien to have been confident both in the beauty of her prose and the subtlety of the cohesive character dying before the novel even begins.