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by Madeleine Thien
Reviewed by Tad Deffler

Over this past summer, Case 002 was getting underway in the Cambodian legal system. This is the trial of several of the top Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of genocide, torture and crimes against humanity for their roles in what has become known popularly as the Killing Fields. During the four year period of their power, some estimates say that as many as one quarter of Cambodia's entire population was killed, a statistic that makes the count inherent in the term "decimate" seem paltry. Madeleine Thien's contribution to holocaust (small h) literature surfaces out of that period.

The skeleton of the story is set in 2006: Janie, a neurological researcher who came to Canada as an orphaned 11 year old fleeing the Khmer Rouge, becomes fixated on finding Hiroji, an older friend and fellow researcher who has disappeared. The meat of the story, however, lies 25 years farther into the past. Janie's suspicion that Hiroji is seeking his brother, James, a medical relief doctor who vanished at the end of the Cambodian civil war, has brought up overwhelming memories of the destruction of her family and the horrors she, herself, endured. The divide between Janie Now and the Child Then—a person she doesn't even name, calling herself only Mei, a name given by a prison guard meaning beautiful—is one she has never reconciled. Unable to suppress the past anymore, she starts to let go of her present, leaving her husband and young son and withdrawing from her job.

This theme of fragmented and broken chains of identity permeates the story. Fault lines can be created in the soul, whether from the internal bio-chemical disorders of Janie's patients or the external forces of Khmer Rouge brainwashing and torture, and a life you once had is torn from you and something else takes its place. Those who cannot accept that, who lose the past or refuse the present, remain crippled. Only, as Janie says, by trying to "steal back and piece together" our many lives can some measure of wholeness be found.

It's not always an easy book to read due to Thien's writing style. On one hand, it's frugal, sometimes leaving out signals of changes in time or person. On the other, it's almost visual rather than verbal, using short mental images (sometimes surreal) to convey feeling and tone. The result is, at times, something like an Impressionist painting—if you look closely at the details, it doesn't make much sense; you have to step back and take in the entire image, letting your mind fill in the details.

One might expect that the content of a story with genocide as a setting might be difficult to stomach but it isn't particularly so: the horrors of torture, murder and rape take place largely off stage. This is almost necessary since the later lives of characters are already pale in comparison to the intensity of their pasts, making it hard enough to come to grips with what they have become. Even more so than the writing style, this insubstantiality forces readers to work hard at the end. Thien does not hand you the answers to where the characters have ended up; you must puzzle out for yourself how Janie has resolved the fragmentation of her life…or, indeed, if she has even resolved it at all.

This is a book that tends more toward examining consequences rather than causes. When Janie says, "One day, I promise, I'll find a way to tell you everything," she isn't speaking to the reader for we are told relatively little about the Killing Fields. This fictional exploration is a welcome addition to the testamentary memoirs and historical analyses that naturally follow soon after a catastrophe. To some extent, the literature of the Holocaust (capital h) and the Stalinist Purges have dominated our consciousness of 20th century genocide for decades. However, the second half of that century was as bloody as the first and merits equal attention.

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