By Madeleine Thien
FABER & FABER, [pound]14.99.
Madeleine Thien's debut novel opens with the arresting scene of an ordinary moment in a relationship. Ansel, a pulmonary specialist, wakes up and reaches for the warm form of his partner, Gail, across the sheets. Then he remembers, again, that she died of pneumonia more than a year ago. The opening scenes are filled with Ansel's aching loss and, over the following chapters, we learn about the complicated emotional fissures that surrounded Gail's death.
Gail, a radio journalist specialising in soundscapes, had become obsessed with a diary kept by William Sullivan, a Canadian soldier held as a Japanese PoW in North Borneo during the Second World War. Written in code, the diary was discovered by his daughter; Gail manages, with the help of a friend, to crack it. The obvious metaphor is that cracking the code runs parallel to Gail's search to understand her father Matthew's tangled history, growing up on the island under Japanese occupation.
Born in Borneo before the Japanese invasion, Matthew's father collaborated with the enemy to protect his family. Despite Matthew's trauma during the war, which included witnessing his father's execution, he feels forced to flee, leaving behind his childhood love, Ani. …