In award-winning Canadian novelist Thien’s latest book, a woman named Janie discovers the impossibility of ever really leaving the past behind. Janie has been struggling in her role as wife and mother. One frigid Montreal winter, she abruptly leaves her husband and young son and retreats to the empty apartment of her mentor, Dr. Hiroji Matsui, a neurologist who’s recently disappeared. Janie believes Hiroji has taken off to find his missing brother, James, a Red Cross doctor transplanted from Vancouver to Phnom Penh, who mysteriously vanished in 1975 during the final stages of Cambodia’s devastating civil war. She eventually decides to follow Hiroji there.
Learning more about James’s disappearance, Janie is brought back to her own childhood in Cambodia, where her family was violently ripped apart as the Khmer Rouge took control. In an effort to erase the past and start from scratch, the regime attempted to destroy any vestige of culture, tradition or family and return the nation to “Year Zero,” as it’s chillingly called. In the process, Janie and many others had their lives pulled apart. She was finally sent to Canada as a refugee, leaving her former identity behind in Cambodia—even her old name. The name Janie, she says, is her “Canadian name.”
If Janie left Cambodia for Canada, James did it the other way round, travelling to Phnom Penh after completing his medical training in Vancouver. Like Janie, he’s lived under different names: born Junichiro Matsui, he renamed himself James as a teenager, and decades later—after losing his home and family in the war—he is living under another name entirely, making it all but impossible for Hiroji to track him down. In stark, beautiful prose, Thien (whose first work of fiction, Simple Recipes, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book) shows that it’s through these characters’ relationships with others—like James’s complicated bond with his brother, or Janie’s with her husband and son, and the connection between Janie and Hiroji—that a more permanent identity is created.