McClelland & Stewart
While the 31-year-old has clearly gotten over the shyness and inarticulacy humps, the experience of writing her new novel Certainty – a moving, richly textured and immaculately nuanced study of war, grief, displacement, love, renewal, photography, and much more – may be stretching the definition of “fun” just a little.
The novel, Thien’s followup to her acclaimed debut collection Simple Recipes, deftly juggles several overlapping narratives and two parallel love stories. Gail Lim is a Canadian radio documentary producer; her father Matthew was orphaned by the brutal events in North Borneo during World War II. As a child there, he formed a deep bond with the girl Ani, also an orphan. The two are separated and briefly re-united before Matthew goes away to study in Australia; there he meets and marries Clara and they end up in Canada. Their daughter’s life is cut short by pneumonia (that’s not a plot spoiler, it’s revealed early) and the novel’s timeline shifts back to accommodate Gail’s efforts to piece together her father’s past, which involves a trip to the Netherlands to see Ani’s Dutch husband. It also deals with Ansel, Gail’s husband, as he struggles in the wake of her death. It all sounds dauntingly tangled but remarkably it isn’t. In Thien’s sure hands Certainty manages to convey a broad sweep of history, setting, and character while making the individual components immediate and intimate. Equally impressive is that its grappling with big ideas never gets in the way of its storytelling imperative.
Epigraphs, when they’re well chosen, can elucidate and enrich a novel’s themes without spoiling the mutual contract of the writer-reader relationship. It’s a tradition that has been in decline, but one that Thien takes seriously. For Certainty she has chosen two. The first is from Albert Einstein: “For we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
“I was almost finished the novel [when I found that quote], and had been thinking a lot about the way timelines intersect,” Thien says. “He’s talking about his own research into time and space, but it was written as part of a letter of condolence, and because Certainty deals so much with bereavement and loss I really felt it. It was very consoling. There are histories in the book that are finished by death, but there is also that sense of a constant present, of people living on in some way.”
The second epigraph, from writer Michael Ignatieff, addresses the question of when and if the natural desire for certainty (clearly the word resonated for Thien) can be surrendered.
“I didn’t know how to state it better than he did in that sentence. It’s wonderful to find a quote like that so early, one that has a guiding impact. Rather than coming to that question at the end, you can start with it, and go a lot further: How much can we really know a person? There are multiple solitudes in this novel, people trying to understand people they’re very close to, and know very deeply, yet finding at a certain point that they are unknowable.”
Certainty is a dense book, both technically and thematically. Keeping the shifting, wide-ranging narrative smooth and in focus was a challenge set and successfully met: the book, for all its time-shifts and complex content, is a page-turner. But was Thien concerned that the central process of death and grief in the book might weigh both her and the work down?
“Well, I started with wanting to learn more about the war in British North Borneo, and it soon became inevitable to me that it would be a novel about grieving. My mother died while I was writing this book, so in a way I was already submerged in the idea. It’s strange to be talking about this. I wrote it because it was what I needed to do. I didn’t think about what it would mean to other people.”
A subplot/motif involving a war diary written in code touches on the issue what can, in the end, be written about, and what resists written representation. Presumably it’s a question Thien was often faced with.
“Yes. I had never written about war, so I felt a very big obligation to write about it in a responsible way. And I found in the course of my research that this was especially brutal. It’s so bloody, there’s so much atrocity. I didn’t put a lot of it into the book because I just couldn’t. And it was especially difficult to write about children’s response to war and death. From what I recall I kept trying to approach it from various angles. They’re children, so for them context is lost but emotional impact is very strong.”
A quote from scientist Richard Dawkins, incorporated seamlessly into Certainty‘s text, has wide ripples of implication: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”
“For me it relates to something that we’re seeing now in international law, with its attempt to step outside of the cycle of history,” she says. “With books, with history, with all that we have at our disposal, we can now look at a much wider time frame and do something with what we know, other than falling into the same patterns. The idea that we don’t rely on altruism but choose to be altruistic might take us farther than simply believing that we’re naturally good. It’s more of an active thing then, as opposed to relying on some sort of moral core.”
Fittingly perhaps for a writer who deals in displacement and distance, Thien has been living for a year and a half in Quebec City. The move came about because her Dutch engineer husband, Willem Atsa, got a job there. She says she was partly prepared for the experience by living for a time in the rural north of the Netherlands, where a relatively indigenous (if non-separatist) culture still thrives.
“Quebec City really feels like a cross between Europe and Canada. It’s a good place for an English writer. Maybe it depends on the person, but I enjoy standing apart a bit. And it’s a big enough city that there’s always something to do.”
How is her French?
“It’s functional, not beautiful by any means. Good enough to get by, but not good enough to enjoy a dinner party in French. I hope to be bilingual by the time we have to leave.”
Thien elaborates on her experience of living in both Europe and Canada – particularly Quebec – as a minority in each case.
“Because a lot of European nations are very much defined by blood, by ethnicity, the kind of multiculturalism we have in Canada is still very foreign to them there. People there, for example, are still often surprised to learn that I would be writing in English. And I still get the question in Europe of ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I’m from Canada.’ ‘But where are you really from?’ I don’t get that elsewhere in Canada anymore but I do get it in Quebec. Which I find interesting, because this is a place that is really confronting the idea of what makes a Quebecer. From my perspective, I prefer a lot of what Canada has done for the idea of multiculturalism. I think it’s exciting. It holds so much promise. And the reason Canada has that potential is because of Quebec, because we’ve always had that balance. If we can make it work here…”
The thought trails off in contemplation of possible futures, and it feels like a good time to get back to first principles, to writing as a vocation and the cultural context of her ambition to do it. She had, at first, wanted to be a journalist and foreign correspondent, so how did her mother take the fiction decision? “Well, she was always taking us to cultural activities, so she wasn’t at all surprised, but like most mothers would be she was worried about the more practical side, about my having something to fall back on.”
She needn’t have worried. Certainty has to date been sold in eight foreign territories, and it would be surprising if it didn’t at some point become a film. The author evinces genuine humility – she actually blushes – when her success is brought up. More pertinent for her, it appears, are the more intangible rewards of what she does. A job that provides a creative outlet for grief, among many other emotions, is no small thing.
“I felt lucky to be able to put [all that] in a book, because everybody goes through this experience but so often they have no place to put it. You just have to go on and let time pass. So to be a writer, to have a place to put it and to be able to make meaning out of it, is really a blessed profession. mRb