This is an emotional, contemplative novel about two survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, who struggle to come to terms with their memories decades after the genocide. Unfortunately, its characters are half-baked: one of the protagonists is a blank slate despite nearing middle age, while the other is built up as a reformed villain only to turn out not to be a villain at all.
Teera arrives in Cambodia in 2003, for the first time since fleeing the country for Thailand and ultimately the United States in 1979, at the age of 13. She’s drawn to return in part by the dying wish of her aunt, the only other member of her family to survive, and in part by a letter from a man calling himself the Old Musician, who wants to give her musical instruments that belonged to her father. The Old Musician, aka Tun, lives in a monastery where he nurses his physical and emotional injuries from the days of the Khmer Rouge, and seems to live in a state of constant self-flagellation. The novel alternates between the perspectives of these two characters, as they wander about feeling lots of feelings, remembering their traumas in detail, and witnessing the harsh realities of Cambodia in 2003 (a country full of poverty and violence, though this never threatens the protagonists directly).
Given that this book revolves around the characters’ emotional journeys, it’s a shame they aren’t better-drawn. Teera in particular is a blank slate; she’s supposed to be 37, but I would have pegged her at late teens or early 20s, as she seems to have neither lived an adult life, nor to have thought about her life and what she wants from it. How does she feel about being single and childless at 37? How has her community of Cambodian refugees in Minnesota reacted to this? Has she ever had a romantic partner, or even a friend; has she connected with anyone other than her aunt in the last 24 years? And if not, how does she so easily fall into a romance once the book begins? Has she found purpose in her work as a grant writer (mentioned only to tell us she quit to go to Cambodia), or is it just a job, and if so, what does motivate and interest her? She apparently wants to be a writer, so what has she written in all that time, or if she hasn’t, why not? None of these questions are answered. Teera has a lot of feelings about her childhood, her family and her home country, but she’s lacking a personality and a life history outside of her childhood trauma. She doesn’t quite feel real.
Tun has had more of a life, though he’s still not a complex character. My issue here is that the book is presented as addressing the way Khmer Rouge victims and perpetrators now live side-by-side in Cambodia, and Tun is built up as the perpetrator in Teera’s father’s death. But it turns out to be one of those stories where, when our so-called villain protagonist’s history is revealed, he hasn’t actually done anything that awful. Tun joined the Khmer Rouge because he opposed the previous bad government and believed this would help bring democracy, and then he did his best at every turn. Every horrific thing he’s supposedly done turns out to have been either a mercy killing or something he was forced to do under torture or at gunpoint. I’m not sure what to make of this: was the author’s point that there were very few real villains, just lots of good people struggling with the terrible hand they were dealt? Or did she just chicken out on creating a complex and morally flawed character?
And while we’re at it, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the rest of the cast either. The repeated introduction of three-year-old girls orphaned under traumatic circumstances, and yet who are complete angels who bring nothing but joy and love (definitely never frustration or difficulty) to adult lives, was a bit much. One such child I might have grudgingly accepted, but two?
But I did learn a bit about Cambodia and its history from the book, and it’s a fairly quick read, though the subject matter is often dark and brutal. There’s a lot of presumably genuine emotion in it, as the author herself was a survivor who journeyed back to Cambodia in hopes of learning about her father’s fate. The writing style is fluid and easy to read, though I’d call it “wordy” more than “lyrical”; there was nothing particularly arresting to me about the use of language, but it’s certainly contemplative, with many passages embroidering on the characters’ thoughts, emotions, ideas, and sensations. While there isn’t a lot going on in the present-day plot, the story still manages to be engaging and vivid. I wouldn’t recommend this book on its literary merits, but as a deeply-felt novel by a genocide survivor, it’s worth a read for those interested in the places and issues addressed.