"We had to sign our names to these biographies, and we did this over and over, naming family and friends, illuminating the past. My little brother and I were only eight and ten years old but, even then, we understood that the story of one's life could not be trusted, that it could destroy you and all the people you loved." Evicted from their family home in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, by the Khmer Rouge, Mei and her family are forced to follow the long and arduous trek through a devastated country, only to see the parents being taken away and the children ending up in a one of the many work camps. "Families are a disease of the past" and "attachment to the world is a crime", was the official position of the Khmer Rouge. Mei's voice forms the compelling centre of Madeleine Thien's extraordinary and deeply moving novel of loss and survival, of memory and identity, of past and present intermingling, and of the underlying deep-seated need to heal from the wounds inflicted on body and soul. But how?
Rarely have I read a novel that pulled me so quickly so deeply into the emotional life and traumas of the central characters and the external circumstances that led to these upheavals. Madeleine Thien takes us deep into the brutal and devastating realities of the Khmer Rouge Regime that lasted officially from 1975 to 1978, but whose violent actions were felt inside the country for a much longer time. It seem inconceivable to us today, what happened to the people of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge Regime, that left between one and two million people dead and many others displaced without trace.
Written with admirable delicacy and tenderness, deep compassion and understanding, Thien recounts the harrowing and life-threatening circumstances of the past as seen primarily through the eyes of ten-year old Mei. These events not only kept haunting the young girl but they inflicted such deep emotional wounds that the after-effects have been reaching, like an octopus's tentacles, into the present and continue to deeply trouble the innermost soul of forty-year old survivor, Janie. "It's in the night, I know, that the ones we love disappear[...] In my dreams I saw every one and everything[...] The Khmer Rouge had taught us how to survive, walking alone, carrying nothing in our hands. Belongings were slid away, then family and loved ones, then finally our loyalties and ourselves. Worthless or precious, indifferent or loved, all of our treasures had been treated the same."
"Mei" was not her real name, but a name given to her by one of the guards controlling the children's camp, a youth hardly older, but with AK 47s slung over his shoulder as a sign of power. "Names", Mei learned, "were empty syllables, signifying nothing, lost as easily as a suit of clothes, a brother or a sister, an entire world. " For her it felt normal, when, some time after finally escaping and arriving in Canada, she requested a Canadian name: Mei became Janie. If only suffering and trauma could be stripped away as easily as a name! Janie, now thirty years later and working as a neurological researcher in Montreal, cannot free herself from the past: "I have too many selves and they no longer fit together." While memories are vivid in her dreams, she sees bare walls when she wakes up. She is still not able to find a voice to share any of her harrowing experiences, not even with those closest to her. One day, however, her search into the disappearance of her fatherly friend and mentor, Hiroji, "cracks open" something hidden deep inside her... and her life shatters into more shards than she is able to catch as they fall. Convinced that Hiroji left for Cambodia in search of his brother Junicho (James), who had disappeared in Phnom Penh in 1975, she also has to embarks on a journey...
Madeleine Thien's novel opens with Janie's investigation into Hiroji's disappearance. Her search for clues as to his whereabouts provides the trigger to bring her own past vividly back into focus and to relive Mei's ordeals and her struggle for survival. It is an intimate account, a journey that, at times, is harrowing, always emotionally charged, fast moving and totally absorbing. With a confident hand, a tender gentle touch and a deeply compassionate mind, Thien has brought a story to life in which the past and the present blend together in the minds of her characters, where the world of the past demands attention in the world of the present, where wounds can only heal when the causes for the paperthin scars are confronted again and written or talked about with those who love and can give of themselves.
Madeleine Thien's new novel is a marvel in many ways. She writes with such gentleness and thoughtfulness as well as deep understanding of a particular historical time that as readers we feel drawn completely into the mind of "Mei", the ten-year at the centre of the harrowing events and her forty-year old adult self, Janie, whose life is in danger of total disintegration if she cannot heal from the past experiences. Depending on her needs, Thien's language can be sparse or rich with poetic imagery and unusual rhythms; often her descriptions are impressionistic, evoking situations rather than spelling out the gruesome details, leaving it to the reader to complete the picture or thought in their own minds. Some images remind me of Chinese painting where a few brushstrokes can tell a complete story. Thien's many personal encounters with survivors, both in Cambodia and elsewhere, has given her rare insights into the long-term effects of deep trauma even decades later. *) She has transposed these authentic voices into an extraordinary, powerful and important novel. [Friederike Knabe]
*) see first comment.