Title: The Disappeared
Author: Kim Echlin
Length: 227 pages
Source: public library
Challenges/Resolutions: Travel the Globe Resolution (and Further Exploration)
This is the second round (of six) for my Travel the Globe Resolution, which I’m doing with a blogger friend, Shannon at Giraffe Days.
Read Shannon’s review of The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman, her pick for Cambodia.
Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared is a very haunting novel, set amidst the political and military turmoil of Cambodia in the late 20th century. The story starts in Montreal, where 16-year-old Anne Greves meets Serey, a Cambodian man who studies mathematics and sings in a rock band. They fall deeply in love, but not too long after they meet, Cambodia’s borders are opened (1979) and Serey decides to go home to attempt to find the family he was unable to get back to for four years because of the Khmer Rouge. Anne, only sixteen, stays in Montreal and about ten years after Serey leaves, she thinks she sees him in some news footage on television and heads of to find him. She does find him, but she has a very Westernized view of democracy and the “democracy” in place in Cambodia doesn’t follow suit. The ending is tragic, in more ways than one.
The book spans about a 30-year period, starting near 1979 when Cambodia’s borders were reopened. Much of the story, however, is set around 1989-1990, when the occupying Vietnamese troops left the country to the UN and other Western aid organizations. It is around 1989 when Anne goes to Cambodia to find Serey. Much of the action is set in Phnom Penh, the capital, where Anne and Serey start their life together. Anne thinks she knows what she is getting into and what she will see because she has seen the news footage of death and destruction, but she isn’t quite prepared for what she sees. Echlin describes the post-war country with great ease. Her writing does not describe what everything looks like, per se, but rather she uses Anne’s narrative to display the country. Anne spends much of her time simply walking around and talking to many people. Through these seemingly unimportant characters, Anne reveals what the country is like by recounting the war’s affects on its people. I have a quote from one of those characters that I think illustrates my point:
Under Sihanouk, people used to greet each other, How many children have you? Under Lon Nol, people said, Are you well? Under the Khmer Rouge, How much food do you get in your cooperative? Now we say, How many of your family are still alive? (p103)
Doesn’t that paint a grave picture? I think it was especially powerful because it describes what life had been like–prosperous–and it described how the country fell into it’s current state of destruction, more than politically speaking.
Obviously, much of the secondary focus of this book is set on how the people in Cambodia are recovering from the past decades of war and military occupation. I say this is only the secondary focus because the greatest focus is set on how much Anne loves Serey (but I’ll explain more about in just a minute). I did not know very much about this time in history for this area of the world. When I did my student teaching in a World History course, I left the school right after the Cold War (universities here are done at least a month before public schools, so I graduated 🙂 ), so this would’ve been in my next unit. Yes, I’ve heard of the Khmer Rouge and assumed it was either a communist or socialist political group (it was communist). You see, I didn’t even learn about this stuff in college, so Western focused was my education that this would be overlooked for the Vietnam War 😦 Since I was so unaware of this area of the world at this time, I got a timeline of political activity in Cambodia and wrote it on a post-it, keeping it in my book so I could refer back. Like with Potiki set in New Zealand, I got what I wanted out of this book: a story set amidst all of the turmoil in Cambodia so that I could learn a little. If the book didn’t teach me all I wanted to know, it would at least force me to research into it a little, just like Potiki did. Everything I wanted to know about the country was in the book, except the basics which I think I need to understand aren’t always explained in works of fiction. Perhaps this means I should sort of research BEFORE I read, so I have the background, instead of waiting for me to wonder at what the characters are talking about and then researching into it.
Going back to the love part of the story, it was actually my least favorite part of the story. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate love and romance in a novel as much as the next person. However, I did not like the way Echlin went about it in this novel. Now, I never studied English so please, forgive me if I really mess up when trying to explain this Anne is the sole narrator of this novel. Serey is the only other character I would describe as a “main character”. All of the story is Anne narrating the story to Serey. For example: “I [Anne] walked into the Globe on Sihanouk Boulevard and I saw you [Serey] standing at the bar” (p71). I found this all quite annoying. Why tell the story to the only other character and to someone who experienced it with you the first time? Shouldn’t they remember? I figured, unless she is recounting all of this to Serey because he had amnesia (which he didn’t), there was no reason for the story to be written that way. Echlin should have, in my opinion, had a third even unnamed character to whom Anne was directing the narrative, or even to the reader himself/herself. This “talking between two characters” the whole time made me feel uninvited to the story, even alienated. I think the story could have been just as powerful had the story been narrated differently.
However, I did like the rest of the story–when it wasn’t concentrated on Anne and Serey’s love. If it was just the two of them living their lives, I liked it. But once Anne went profusely on and on about how much she loved Serey, I got annoyed and felt like she hadn’t changed at all from that 16-year-old who fell in love with him.
Which brings up another point: Anne’s character. I can’t make up my mind about her. She is very passionate and she doesn’t easily let go of the things she loves. She won’t leave the past alone, even though all of the other characters in the novel, at some point or other, tell her to let the past be the past and to move on. But she won’t! Now, I’ve never lost someone incredibly close to me, so I can’t say that I would be able to give it up easily either. But I would hope that after 10-15 years, I would have moved on with my life. Sure, thinking about the lost is okay; but letting it affect you so that your life has so much pain and so many problems for years to come isn’t healthy, I think.
This is not the cover my book came with, but I actually like it better than the one I had. I understand this cover more, where I don’t exactly understand all of the things included on the cover above.