The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

6098557What a beautiful book! What a terrible book! When I started reading, I was quickly hooked and settled in for a possible read-through-the-night experience. But it didn’t happen. About halfway through the book, I had to start taking frequent breaks because of the events that are described. There is such a stark contrast in this book between the lyrical writing and the horrific subject. It made for a very emotional reading experience.

The book tells the love story of Anne and Serey, who meet and fall in love in Montreal in the late 70s. Serey is Cambodian, unable to leave Canada until the Vietnamese invasion reopens the Cambodian borders. Serey returns home, alone, to search for his family. When the UN takes over Cambodia a decade later, Anne decides to go to Phnom Penh to search for the love of her life.

Two million people lost their lives on the Killing Fields; a way of life was destroyed during 15 years of war crimes. What Anne finds in Cambodia is a traumatized people trying to recover and rebuild. People are desperate to survive, revive some of their traditions, and learn to live with profound loss. Against all odds, Anne also finds Serey. Their love has transcended time and place, but Serey is haunted by his family’s disappearance. And, as can be seen all too often in history, the end of a war on paper does not mean people suddenly stop killing and committing crimes. Anne, wrapped up in her new life, her desire to learn about the people around her, and a pregnancy, does not realize that Serey is doing more than translating for foreigners until he disappears.

This is a powerful book. Anne is the narrator of the story, yet she doesn’t speak to the reader but to Serey. I thought it was an interesting technique, contrasting Anne’s intimate and often dreamlike voice with the pain that is felt by so many of the book’s characters. The short chapters—sometimes not even half a page—jump back and forth in time. It kept me on my toes trying to piece together the story, while also giving me the breaks I needed from reading about the Cambodian genocide.

As much as this is a love story, it is also a book about how to deal with extreme loss and moving on after experiencing trauma. How can you claim the past and honor your dead when there are no bones to bury and no priests left to pray over the dead? “Despair is an unwitnessed life,” says Anne, but the burden to bear witness is great when every fourth person of the population is now a nameless corpse. How can there be hope if everything around and inside you reminds you of something or someone you lost?

“Maybe the only hope is that our humanity might kick into a higher gear, that the more we admit to seeing, the more we will believe we are not that different from each other.” (p. 68)

I read this very moving book for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. I will follow it up with Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, a non-fiction narrative of one person’s survival of Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime.

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12 comments

  1. Wow, this sounds wonderful. I generally avoid books that are about devastating events, I like books with beautiful writing, I like books that jump back and forth in time, and the way you describe this book as “giving me the breaks I needed from reading about the Cambodian genocide” makes it sound manageable.

  2. Beautiful review! I loved what you said about Anne’s voice – how she speaks to Serey and not the reader. I thought that that was one of the interesting and beautiful things about the book. That line you have quoted – ‘Despair is an unwitnessed life’ – is very beautiful and poignant and in a way breaks one’s heart. I love the cover of the edition you have read – so beautiful! I wish I had this edition.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I thought the voice was one thing that made this book very special. There were several things in the novel that broke my heart… it was hard to read about them. But I’m glad I did.

  3. What a great review of this book! I read it a couple of years ago, and your review brings it all back. I had never read a book set during this time and place before, so I learned a lot. I imagine your next book will make things even more clear. The Disappeared jumped around so much that sometimes I was a little confused about who was what and what was when. I’m curious to hear about the non-fiction account!

    • I was wondering whether you had read it, since it Can Lit. 🙂 I had to read up on recent Cambodian history as well, in order to understand everything, and at first I wished the background information had been included in the book. But I think it would not have worked with the setup and the tone of the story. I’m only a chapter into the non-fiction, but so far so good.

  4. A beautiful review. Thanks for partcipating. I’m so glad you liked it as well. I read the first part very quickly too but then it turned so much darker. Those awful killings of babies . . . It really got to me. And the end, of course. I’m interested to read your review on that non-fiction book. It sounds interesting.
    I liked how she often spoke to her lover and the dreamlike quality you mention.

    • I liked your comparison to the book being written as a lament. Very true. I’m looking forward to reading some non-fiction about Cambodia, although it will likely be just as gut-wrenching as this one was. I’m looking forward to the next book in your readalong!

  5. Wonderful review…Your commentary on the stark contrast between the beautiful, lyrical writing and the horrific subject matter reminds me very much of a book I read two or three years ago. It’s called The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (have you read it by any chance?). It’s another story of wartime atrocities, survival and learning to come to terms with a deep sense of loss.

    We can learn so much from these books even if they do make for emotional reading experiences, I hope this one wasn’t too traumatic for you.

    • As odd as it sounds, I like these gut-wrenching books that really pull me in. I don’t know The Garden of Evening Mists, but I checked it out and it sounds like something I will like. Thanks for the recommendation

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