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HISTORICAL NOVELS

Passages, through grief, hardship, and betrayal

Certainty
By Madeleine Thien
Little, Brown, 320 pp., $23.99

This Human Season
By Louise Dean
Harcourt, 374 pp., $23

The Welsh Girl
By Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, 338 pp., $24

It seems that every other novel I come across these days is busy shuttling its characters back and forth between the present and a specific historical past. Whether the narrative commutes between modern London and 19th-century India, or New York in 2006 and Germany in the 1930s, the immediate appeal of the approach is obvious: Mysteries of the present are neatly explained by events of the past (or vice versa), and there is a reassuring tidiness to the whole setup. No straggly bits left over to irritate the mechanical mind. The straggly bits, however, are what make a life human, or so Madeleine Thien seems to contend in her first novel, "Certainty," a glorious exception to the writing-by-numbers rule.

Thien, an acclaimed Canadian story writer and the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, snags us with her first sentence: "In what was to have been the future, Ansel rolled towards her, half awake, half forgetful." We are in a tense that, as far as I know, does not exist in English. Is it the future imperfect, the past conditional? Above all, we are as confused as Ansel is when he wakes, yet again, to the slow-surfacing reality of Gail, his young life's companion, being dead. Within a couple of pages we too inhabit this reality and, intermittently, a more distant one that has bestowed greater losses. Great or small, all wounds are masterfully and delicately exposed.

"What happened in the past is there, unaltered by spirits or wishes," one character observes. "It will never disappear." While Ansel, a physician in Vancouver, is tethered to his previous life with Gail -- his real life -- Gail's parents, Matthew and Clara, are still buffeted by Matthew's wartime and postwar childhood in Borneo. We meet Matthew as a stooped man, prematurely aged by his daughter's death, but we get to know him as a 7-year-old boy in British North Borneo in 1945. The British are gone, of course, having surrendered in 1942, and now, as the Allies close in, the occupying Japanese Army is about to leave. But not before they further disfigure the lives of Matthew and his 10-year-old sweetheart, Ani. Their fathers (one a collaborator) are brutally, casually killed. Ani becomes an orphan, Matthew a protective son, and, reunited in 1957, they become lovers. This story alone could be an epic, but Thien wonderfully compresses it and everything else in the novel. No detail is missed, and each one is telling, whether she describes starving prisoners of war or a sleeping child, the bomb-cratered jungle or the Indonesian sunrise.

"Here, in Canada, the roads are clean and straight, and the landscape, familiar now, steadies him," Thien writes of Matthew in his new life. Straight lines are, of course, an illusion. The past meanders in and out of the present, and characters salvage what they can. Gail, a radio journalist, unearths her father's painful secret only to become another of his ghosts. "What good did memory do," Ani asks, "if one could never make amends?"

In Louise Dean's exceptional new novel, "This Human Season," making amends is not the point. Not in Northern Ireland in 1979. During the bloodiest period of the Troubles, Kathleen Moran's son, a member of the Irish Republican Army, is transferred to the high-security H block in Belfast's Maze prison, where he joins the "dirty protest." Sean and his fellow IRA inmates reject the prison uniform, wrap themselves in blankets, and smear their cell walls with excrement, demanding political-prisoner status. The protest eventually escalated into the more famous hunger strikes, but Dean cleverly situates her drama on the brink of that larger crisis, consigning it to a future that her main characters can only dread. She imprisons us in the anxious present as well, confining us to Belfast's grimy Catholic ghettos and then, another hellish circle down, to the appalling, stench-filled cocoon of the H block.

We see the streets through the eyes of Kathleen, a young wife and mother who has difficulty with both of those roles, and we endure the prison alongside John Dunn , a new warden and ex- British soldier who struggles to adjust to the psychotic camaraderie of the Maze, to living with his girlfriend, and to the prospect of meeting an adult son of whom he knows next to nothing. As the novel revolves in two separate orbits -- around Kathleen, around John -- Dean mercilessly heightens the suspense while managing at the same time to confer complexity and even grace on her characters and on their forbidding city.

The softer landscape of Snowdonia, Wales, is the setting for Peter Ho Davies's first novel, "The Welsh Girl," a graceful World War II romance that propels Esther, a young shepherd's daughter, into the arms of a German soldier who has briefly escaped from a nearby prisoner-of-war camp. The novel's darker encounter, between Rotherham, a German-born British captain, and Rudolf Hess, whom Rotherham has been assigned to interrogate in Scotland, is far more interesting, but even here Davies is so preoccupied with his grand theme of identity -- German/Jewish, British/Welsh -- that he seems to neglect the smaller lives of his characters.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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