Madeleine Thien


(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 11, 2007)

All her life, Gail Lim has lived with a secret, one that has colored her past and weighed her down like a stone. “Ani -- hers was a name my parents both knew,“ she recounts in Madeleine Thien’s accomplished debut novel Certainty, “and between them, it seemed to have a meaning, a weight.”

Read excerptAs it turns out, Lim’s mission to uncover this family secret will trace a history that visits many continents and will eventually yield a very tentative closure for all involved. The radio writer will discover that her Indonesian grandfather was brutally murdered by the Japanese during World War II and worse, that her own father, Matthew, was witness to this execution. The trauma of the loss is so severe that Matthew leaves his childhood love, Ani, behind and makes a life for himself in Canada.

It is in this strange country that is nothing like his tropical birthplace, that he makes a new life for himself and his wife, Clara. Matthew finds however, that the past has a powerful grip on him. “Sometimes, one had to let go of the living just as surely as one grieved the dead,“ he tries telling himself, “Some things, lost long ago, could not be returned.” Yet his daily life is punctuated with vivid flashes of memory from a war that left a lasting impression on his youth.

When Certainty opens, Gail Lim is dead being mourned by her parents and by her longtime partner, Ansel. We learn that she had become obsessed in trying to decode a diary kept by William Sullivan, a Canadian POW captured by the Japanese during World War II. The search for the diary’s answers very much mirrors the one for her own family’s past. “Code breaking is part of a very human desire, the desire for revelation, for meaning,“ Lim explains, “To have every secret, every private thought, laid bare, regardless of what that might cost us.”

Certainty covers a lot of ambitious ground. Thien asks some of life’s most complex questions: Is it possible to know a person truly? And if we did, would we know what we had, would we recognize it?  Not only are the questions complex but Certainty also visits important periods in world history -- the Japanese army’s slow spread through Asia during World War II, and Indonesia’s civil unrests make for arresting backdrops to the story. Lim’s search also takes her across many continents and points of view.

Thien pulls it all off well. The writing is very dreamlike and poetic in places: “The past had become like a book submerged in the water, the ink running across the lines, all the detail lost.” Although there are parts towards the beginning of the novel where Matthew’s jolting flashbacks both dampen the pace and seem unrealistic in their frequency, Certainty gains a more assured footing as it moves on.

Thien has framed her debut novel around a quote from Michael Ignatieff’s The Needs of Strangers: “…we could face the worst if we simply renounced our yearning for certainty. But who among us is capable of that renunciation?” The answer to this question, of course, is all but obvious. Where Certainty really works is in showing us exactly how all-consuming this yearning for certainty can be. Also, while the life that Matthew charts is unique, the fact that he constantly grapples with the ghosts from the past, is not. In a sense, Matthew is everyman, trying to live without certainty, while not being “paralyzed by hesitation.” This is one of the novel’s most startling realizations. In Thien’s expert hands, it is also one of its most comforting ones. 
  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

Read an excerpt from Certainty at

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"Simple Recipes : Stories"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson JUL 09, 2002)

The seven stories in Simple Recipes, superbly written narratives by Canadian author Madeleine Thien, reach deep. In finely crafted, crystal clear prose, Thien demonstrates what it is to face loss --- loss of love, comfort, contentment, happiness, but especially that most difficult of losses, the forfeiture of what never really was.

Read excerptThe stories in Simple Recipes are primarily about families living in quietly simmering crises. Things are not quite right. Somewhere, perhaps in the distant past, a mistake was made, a wrong turn taken, and the consequences are slowly unfolding. We realize that these delicate little familial groupings are on trajectories bound for pain, sorrow, and often dissolution.

Someone is always leaving, someone returning. Often someone returns yet to leave again. Wives with young children abruptly abandon their families "to start a new life," a life that the reader knows will be much like the old one.

In the story "House," two young sisters, Kathleen, 10, and Lorraine, 14, both in foster care, decide to visit their old home across town. They were forced to leave it when abandoned by their mother a year before. One day, she simply walked out the door. The two sisters take a bus that brings them "home." For a few minutes, they stand silently contemplating "their" house. They then sit on the front curb for an afternoon, waiting for their mother to return.

They have visions of summer days when their mother, never given a name, would put on a CD and dance for hours with them in their living room, "the ice cubes clinking in her glass." They remember her last birthday when she took them out to a fancy restaurant for Shirley Temples. Her birthday was the one day each year when their mother stayed sober, just to prove, she said, that she could.

They talk of their father, a logger in the Pacific Northwest, who was rarely at home, and who reluctantly passed them along to social services after his wife's abrupt departure.

"Mom and Dad," Thien writes, "sometimes together, sometimes apart, are lodged in Lorraine's head. Try as she might, Lorraine can't make them leave. She thinks she shouldn't try. If they disappear, she doesn't trust herself to bring them back again."

Madeleine Thien is Canadian, the first-generation daughter of Chinese-Malaysian immigrants. (The title story contains a vivid description by a young Canadian girl of her Malaysian-born father making rice.) Many of Thien's stories revolve around struggles relating to generation and culture. Several treat the proverbial difficulties of a stranger in a strange land. However, whether immigrants or not, all of Thien's characters are strangers of a sort, often and most tragic, strangers to themselves. Their burden is their awareness, their ability to recognize the nature of their own often-painful condition.

One of Thien's stories, "Bullet Train," concerns Thea and her 16-year-old illegitimate daughter, Josie. They live alone together. Thea, desperately fearing abandonment, clings tenaciously to Josie, whose long-ago father was a handsome and daring helicopter pilot. His job was mountain rescue. However, once Thea became pregnant, the pilot elected to leave her for lost.

Sixteen years pass. Enter Harold, a quiet, unassuming loner, "shy with women," and ten years Thea's senior. Harold and Thea begin a relationship that puts an end to Thea's obsessive need for Josie, and Josie eventually performs the vanishing act so common in Thien's stories. She leaves Toronto with an anonymous boyfriend, the two bound for parts unknown.

This relationship does not last, nor do others over the years as Josie, alone, begins a rambling global journey scattered with short, random stops. Thien writes, "All her life, Josie will wonder how she bypassed love when it was the very reason for, the root of, her disappearance. When people ask, she will say that her favorite country is the one that has not yet been discovered."

The above may make the stories in Simple Recipes sound simply depressing with a tinge of soap opera. The stories are, indeed, sad. They have a dulling undercurrent of inevitability. They offer few happy endings. However, Thien's writing is real. Murky melodrama plays no part. Thien goes straight to the heart, and she takes us with her. By doing so, we gain a deeper, more sympathetic appreciation of the nature of loss, of loneliness, of abandonment. And, yes, at the risk of sounding trite, we come away with a wiser understanding of "the human condition." Could more be asked of an author?

This is Thien's first collection of short stories. She is, as they say, "someone to be watched."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

Read an excerpt from Simple Recipes at

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About the Author:

Madeleine ThienMadeleine Thien is the Canadian-born daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She received the 2001 Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award and the 1998 Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Emerging Writer Award for fiction, and her collection Simple Recipes was named a notable book by the 2001 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.

Thien won the 2006 First-Novel Award from and Books in Canada. The first novel award comes with a prize of $7,500.

She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014