The Certainties by Aislinn Hunter

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The Certainties is a book that requires a slower read since it is a (sometimes) heavy and melancholy read. Told in alternating timelines – one by an unnamed German Jewish refugee in 1940 fleeing through Spain, and from Pia in 1980. Pia is working on a remote island and will later witness a ship wreck with bodies of refugees washing ashore.

In 1940, Pia meets very briefly this unnamed man and that chance meeting is forever imprinted on both of their minds, and it shapes some of their memories. In 1940 the unnamed man speaks about his days and experiences to Pia in his mind, and Pia often remembers that brief encounter which has left a lasting impact.

The book is written where most of the people are identified only as “the widow”, “the chef”, “the builder”, etc. Only Pia and Suzanne and Bernard who travel with the unnamed man are identified, and the only other times names are used are of the refugees interrogators in Spain. The Certainties is also written with spare, yet descriptive and fragmented imagery:

Pia feels like she can hear the wind circling the building, whipping its head around corners to course along the stone, drag its knuckles along the windows.

One by one, Pia lights the new candles. Her mother made her attend mass as a child and the lighting of the wicks reminds her of those years of supplication, the smell of incense, the ease of ritual. Her mouth on the toes of the statue of the saviour, that gentle kiss.

This was a poignant and moving part said by our unnamed refugee:

I tried to locate what I was seeing, what vision of the future haunted me. I looked to the woman nearest me – in her floral print dress and cloche hat and smart gloves – and her eyes were full of fear….I found myself asking of each – what have you done, what might they hold against you? I thought then of that line in Ovid’s poem when Narcissus is at the pool studying his own reflection: “He fell in love with an insubstantial hope.” What was our hope? That the disarray of the war neuters our interrogators? That we had now become as insignificant as we have been made to feel, so that we might slip through the cracks in our nothingness? Standing there in the shared misery of other travellers struggling forward their papers clenched in their hands, I looked for myself… for some version of me… or for someone’s eyes to meet mine with a look that said we would be all right. I realized what I was doing with a shock: at that moment… to still feel empathy most easily in those cases that reflect my own? That was a failing. Perhaps the greatest failing of all.

When reading The Certainties, it gave me a strong sense of Nicole Krauss’ History of Love. Lindy, my fellow Shadow Juror, says it reminded her of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. So I’ve added that book to my list to read.

While Lindy feels The Certainties sits on the periphery of being on the Giller Longlist, I have a sense it may very well have the strength to fully land on it. By looking through past lists, this seems in the style that catches the jury’s eyes. In my opinion.

It’s a thoughtful and haunting book searching for the parallels in history, memory, survival, and bearing witness – to feel empathy to those seeking refuge.