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Madeleine Thien – Certainty

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If you love someone, stay with them.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-23419-6
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 20th December 2011
Rating: 2/5

This book’s plot is best summed up by giving a true (as in not what the back cover says) insight. Ansel was married to Gail but she recently died. Matthew was in love with Ani but ended up marrying Clara. Both men continue to live in the past – for one of them it’s sort of reasonable, for the other it’s really not right.

Certainty is a book that promises much but fails to deliver on all accounts. It details the day-to-day as well as the past, and while the information on war is interesting and worth reading, the rest is forgettable. The book brings all the characters together to celebrate Gail’s life before moving on to discuss Ansel’s present situation and then Matthew’s past. Gail, although dead, lives through both their memories and Thien’s inclusion of a short piece told about her actions before death. The issue is that the male characters are depressed and neither of them have a true reason to be since they set themselves up for upset; nor do they recommend themselves as good husband material.

This reviewer felt sorry for Ansel as Thien presented him as someone very much in love with his wife. Then a little further into the book she, Thien, tells us how Ansel went behind Gail’s back. This reviewer put the book down, and only returned to it over two months later because she likes to finish what she starts. She felt as betrayed as Gail had. Thien had been making me feel for Ansel and then suddenly told me how he cheated. Instead of feeling sorry for his loss I now found irony in the fact that Gail had died a short while after it all. Neither was I satisfied by Ansel’s admittance or the way he acted towards Gail in future – it all seemed false.

Then there’s Matthew. Clara gets with him and he tells her about the hard life he had, and about Ani, and Clara has to deal with his continuing depression over his father’s death. If it were that simple, okay, but the fact that Matthew is obviously also moping about Ani (who didn’t die) is just stupid. It sets Clara up as a weak follower who does Matthew’s bidding for nothing in return. Matthew should have stayed with Ani, should have waited until he finished university and gone back to her.

Thien’s characters have nothing redeemable about them, except Gail who is unfortunately already dead. The author obviously wanted to write a literary novel that would win awards, and it’s obvious, the writing is too flouncy and pretty and every sentence is short.

Thien goes into irrelevant details, telling us how things are made or prepared that have no bearing on the story whatsoever. And the use of flashbacks is ridiculous. Not only are they used far too much but also there are flashbacks within the flashbacks with no attempt to specify where one ends and another begins.

There is no story to this book – it’s as if the flowery language is supposed to be enough – the characters are pointless and unpleasant, and the women need to stop looking after men who love others instead of them.

The idea behind the book may be about not trusting that things are guaranteed, but all this reader took away from it was the feeling she’d wasted her time. Perhaps this has value as an art form, but barring that there are plenty of other books in the world that should be read and reading this means that one of the valuable ones won’t get a look in.

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