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July 29, 2009

Kim Echlin's The Disappeared

Judith Maclean Miller

More by this author...

A book review by Judith Maclean Miller

Kim Echlin, The Disappeared, Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2009, 235p, ISBN 978-0-670-06908-8

This is a brave book. Echlin sets a delicate love story against the backdrops of Montreal, Canada and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The story begins, briefly, in Phnom Penh, where a woman is hiring a motorbike and driver to help her search all the night clubs of the city.

It quickly flashes back to Montreal, to the sixteen year old Anne Greves, falling in love with Serey, a charismatic young Cambodian university student during the time when Cambodia is closed to the world. Her father, her gruff single parent, is horrified by this relationship, telling her that Serey is totally unsuitable for her, that he is too old for her and that he will leave her as soon as he can return to Cambodia.

The first person narrative voice, which is Anne’s, keeps us close to their story, as they prowl the night clubs of Montreal, enjoying his Khmer music and the stringed, fretted chapei on which he accompanies himself. We come to understand that Anne is telling this story thirty years later, and the viewpoint of her maturity infuses the voice.

Serey teaches Anne about Cambodia, about music, about herself. "This was new, a man wrapping his feelings for me in a song." They explore Montreal on his old Harley, in a city of "chill, clean air."

And of course, after a deliriously happy time for both of them, he does leave her to go back to Cambodia, looking for his parents and his younger brother: "All I wanted was to hear you say, I will wait for you. I will come back for you, but you said, The borders are open. I must go. War claimed you."

After eight years, Anne follows Serey to Cambodia, and the reader sees that she is the woman hiring a driver to search the night clubs. Her quest widens to include a search for truth, for story, as she begins to bear witness to the unbelievable suffering of the people of Cambodia, at a time when the country had "opened" again after the regime of the despotic Pol Pot.

Things were supposed to be better in Cambodia after the shocking years of the killing fields. Anne discovers that truth lies buried in mass graves, that people are silenced, forbidden to speak of their experiences, forbidden to mourn their dead.

She found shocking stories which the world was turning away from, declining to know. Her voice tells some of these stories, including her own, in a delicate, lyrical style, touched with wisdom and compassion.

Hundreds of memorial candles flicker through this book-in the churches of Montreal, in the Buddhist shrines of Cambodia and afloat on the rivers of both places.

Echlin’s accomplishment in this book is remarkable. She tells a charming love story, with delicacy and a straightforward honesty, linking the apparently disconnected places of Montreal and Phnom Penh.

This is a woman’s story of commitment and good faith, of holding to human values in the face of atrocity. At the same time, it is a highly political tale of suffering and the abuse of power, of what happens when the social contract is blasted apart. Resonating beyond the pages of the book, Echlin’s prose style is fine-boned, under-stated, clear-eyed, brave.

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