What 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.