Her adult life unspools when her colleague, a Japanese-Canadian neurologist Hiroji Matsui, disappears. Hiroji and Janie had a special connection as Hiroji’s brother James had disappeared in 1975 after working as a doctor in the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border and then in Phnom Penh .
Janie has already begun showing what are presumably the symptoms of post-traumatic stress in her life when Hiroji disappears. Janie moves into Hiroji’s apartment as she looks for clues as to where he might have gone. What she finds triggers her mind to stray more fully to her years labouring as a child under the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the deaths of her parents and drowning at sea of her brother.
Perhaps because this is not a Cambodian memoir (fictionalised or not) Thien’s work ranges further afield than is usual for this genre. Interestingly, Thien’s husband is a Malaysian immigrant (with his own attendant history); the book is mostly set in Montreal, and while a significantly lengthy flashback sees the abandoning of Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge years Janie endures covered in heartbreaking detail, the narrative back in the present also takes Janie to Laos.
This is a book about the legacy of war, of memory, of grief and of migration, too. Thien’s writing is spare and beautiful. It’s a worth addition to a reading list for those interested in how the Khmer Rouge affected lives even for decades after they were swept from power in Cambodia.
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