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A First Novel that Pits the Far East with Canada

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Madeleine Thien is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants who now lives in Quebec City. Her first novel titled "Certainty" has recently been published in the U.S. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse says it's full of juxtapositions.

ALAN CHEUSE: The irony begins with the title. Nothing in this engaging family story linking two worlds, North Borneo and British Columbia, and told with a deep elegiac sense of life, is certain. It's a quest story told in fragments that opens after the main questing character, a radio journalist named Gail Lim, who's been researching the early life of her father, Matthew, has died. It's a love story about families that presents us with the lamentable latter days of domestic life, before taking us back into the past and helping us to see how they once made a whole piece.

It's a tale of double hemispheres and time periods. It's a stylish attempt to dramatize the unfulfilled lives of the main characters by giving them to us in pieces, and a novel of shifting landscapes, from the Borneo jungle to Western urban settings to the below-sea lands of Holland. And all of this works beautifully as Gail Lim delves into her father's early life and his intense childhood affection for a girl named Ani, together with whom he suffered through the oppressive Japanese rule of his home country.

It's back in Borneo that we find some instruction as to how to read the subtle, almost whisper of a novel when we hear how Ani, the love of Matthew's life, learned about the underwater world of the local fishermen. As one fisherman tells her, each species has a distinctive sound, and if you wait and listen, you can recognize them and follow the sound to where they lie. The sound of this subtle work of desperate kinship and lost worlds is something you may want to follow, too.

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NORRIS: The book is "Certainty" by Madeleine Thien. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.