Canadian Thien’s second novel, newly released in the U.S. after Man Booker Prize finalist Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), moves between present-day Canada and Khmer Rouge–era Cambodia as it explores the cost of surviving a genocide.
Months before the novel begins, Montreal neurologist Hiroji Matsui, whose Japanese parents came to Canada after World War II, walked out of the research center where he worked and disappeared. Janie, a researcher at the center who arrived in Canada from Cambodia as a refugee when she was 11, is now staying in her friend Hiroji’s empty apartment, away from her understanding husband, Navin, and young son, Kiri, while she goes through a psychological, perhaps existential, crisis of her own, haunted by memories of her childhood. The novel’s fragmentary, repetitive structure mirrors both the way the past bleeds into the present and how the lives of the characters themselves bleed together. In 1975, Janie was 8, living in Phnom Penh with her middle-class parents and younger brother before the Khmer took over the city. In snatches, she recalls the horrors that followed: her father’s disappearance and the rest of the family’s struggle to survive unbearable conditions. Within Janie’s story are other stories of Cambodians who shift identities—her brother, Sopham, becomes Rithy in creating a new peasant identity; Janie herself becomes Mei—and who become both victims and perpetrators. Meanwhile, adult Janie comes to realize that Hiroji has gone to Cambodia to search for his older brother, James, who went missing while a Red Cross doctor there in 1975. James has his own story of loss and shifting identity after he is taken prisoner and kept alive for his usefulness as a doctor. While both are haunted by the atrocities they experienced, Janie's and James’ survival take very different courses.
A troubling, difficult read and a worthwhile addition to the growing body of work on the Cambodian holocaust.