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Pickle Me This

April 8, 2007

Certainty by Madeleine Thien

I adored Certainty, the beautiful and thoughtful debut novel by Madeleine Thien (new in paperback). There is something masterful about her seamless weaving of ideas and narratives into this remarkable whole. This story is a careful balance between the possibility of certainty and the probability of chaos.

Certainty is constructed upon ideas: page eleven, and already, we’re considering the history of the mind. Further, we find references to genetics and empathy, to fractals, pulmonology. “The snowflake is the perfect example of sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. These facts and ideas inform the novel, and fill it with the world. Certainty borrows from the post-modern in terms of structure, but then an ultimate sense of wholeness places the novel beyond that tradition.

Thien explores the nature of grief, but more often Certainty is concerned with the nature of love. And the nature of time, of course, as history is what ties the various pieces of this narrative together. Told from at least six points of view, spanning more than half a century and four continents, somehow Thien can invest such vastness with careful meaning and gorgeous language. She writes, “Knowing another is a kind of belief, an act of faith.”

Thien’s novel resists convention. Gail, the character most central to her plot, is deceased before the book begins. Her partner Ansel, and her parents Clara and Matthew are dealing with their grief. Chronology is spurned, as the book’s next section (from Matthew’s point of view) takes us to Borneo in 1945. Later we will discover Clara’s story, more from Ansel, the mysterious role of Ani in Matthew’s past, and toward the end of the book Gail is “resurrected” in a sense, to de-cipher her own character and offer some answers.

Though of course none of these parts gives too much away on their own. Each fits together like a puzzle, and ultimately it is the sum of these stories which provides the “certainty” amidst uncertainty: meaning is evident, and beauty abounds.

(I enjoyed this profile of Thien very much.)

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