Great love stories are inseparable from tragedy. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet: for the iconic lovers in literature, things always end badly. Kim Echlin ups the ante in her third novel by placing her lovers against the backdrop of Pol Pot’s genocidal massacre in Cambodia. Anne Greves is a teenager in Montreal when she first encounters Serey, a Cambodian exile five years her senior, who has lost touch with his family since the borders of his native country were closed. Drawn together by a shared love of the blues, and over the objections of the girl’s father, Anne and Serey begin an affair, with love and death pulsating through the pages, interlaced. When the Vietnamese invade Cambodia and the borders are thrown open, Serey returns home to search for his family and vanishes, prompting Anne to embark on a dangerous journey to Phnom Penh to find him. 'Against the odds the lovers are reunited, and in a country where tranquil rice paddies harbor bones of the massacred', Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But some wounds love can't heal, and when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers that the journey she must now undertake, may reveal a story she cannot bear.
In Montreal, Serey sang to Anne of love and longing. This novel is Anne’s song to him. This story evokes their tumultuous relationship in a world of colliding values, with twin currents of memory and desire, where these two self-exiled lovers struggle to recreate themselves in a world that rejects their hopes. Woven beautifully into this story of love rediscovered, in language which is both poetic and heartbreaking, are the unspeakable horrors wrought by the now retreated Khmer Rouge.
This is a poignant love story and a memorable journey through a nations past. Of all the tensions Echlin successfully negotiates- loss and recovery, betrayal and forgiveness, eastern and western indifference- the intersection of memory and language is the most nuanced. It's direct and devastating. She finds small acts of grace and dignity amid the suffering, and in this novel, it is these quite gestures that speak the loudest.
Stylistically assured, and entirely captivating, Echlin creates sentences beyond our imagining. She captures the beauty and horror of Cambodia in equal measure. “The smell of the River Bassac,” Anne says, describing her first day in Phnom Penh, “meltwaters from distant mountains tangled into humid air and garlic and night jasmine and cooking oil and male sweat and female wetness. Corruption loves the darkness.” Of the killing fields, she writes: “Depressions in the earth overgrown with grass. Stupas of skulls and bones. The sky.” And later: “We watched two small boys catching frogs in the gullies of the fields, running past paddy and sugar palm and cloth and bone. The grass had done its work.” Most memorable is the lingering stench of death: “People startle at cigarette smoke and rotting garbage and gasoline,” Echlin writes, “surrogate odors of torture and dead bodies and bombs. A bad smell makes them jump.”
Much has been said of the banality of evil. Here we are made to think of the banality of indifference.
I have often noted that I love great historical fiction. The stories can cover a brief moment or grand sweep of time. It is simply that beautiful blending of truth and fiction that always seems to strike a chord. The Disappeared confronts one of the most painful conflicts of our time: the collision between our private, personal desires and the brutal, dehumanizing facts of modern history. This transcending love story manages to penetrate the aching core of the Cambodian tragedy, exposing in terrible detail the consequences for generations living through 'Year Zero".
As those responsible for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge face trial now, 30 years after 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered, this work of fiction is a reminder of the atrocities suffered through this very real episode of political oppression and genocide.
This book was truly enthralling. I read it in a matter of hours. While curled up on the couch after a long weekend of moving, it was the perfect retreat. This is a story that will embrace you from the first page and stay with you like a cherished memory.