A Book Review by Stefanie Field
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
This novel of historical fiction takes the reader to two different decades in two different worlds, yet it is written as a testimony to a woman’s trials in love. It begins in the city of Montreal, Canada, where 16-year-old Anne Greves falls in love at first sight with Serey, an exotic musician on the stage of a club. Serey left his family in Cambodia to study abroad, but the reign of Khmer Rouge have resulted in the nation closing its borders for years, forcing Serey to remain in Canada praying his family survives Pol Pot’s massacre of two million. Ignoring the age difference and the discrimination against foreigners and interracial relationships, the two lovers begin to share an obsessive love for each other. Then one day, when word is announced that Cambodia is no longer closed, Serey immediately leaves in search for his family. Years pass by, and Anne can still barely move on. She becomes determined to find Serey, and leaves on a journey to reunite with him, clashing with the laws and turmoil within Cambodia.
I made the mistake of judging the book by its cover. Typically, I get more failures with YA novels than with historical fiction, but this was a big letdown for me… Despite my lack of enjoyment with the novel, I apprciate this cover design with the hues of red to symbolize the ‘Killing Fields.’ But I was also fooled by the many great reviews and appraise it received from other readers, authors, and media organizations. I was hoping for a novel that would tug at my heart, and it failed to do so. It did not fail to bring up an interesting theme, though.
The novel introduces the two main characters as lovers at first sight. Anne Greves is a 16-year-old girl, motherless and rebellious. Serey is several years older, getting by as a musician and a college math tutor. Although they are meant to be described as soulmates with an inexplicable bond that pulls them together, I never felt that way about the two. Instead, I felt Serey was doing his own thing and appreciating that Anne Greves was there beside him. Yet Anne was obsessed in her love for him, and nothing could tear her away from Serey. Personally, she seemed to be spoiled in her teenage years, or at least, irresponsible. As the story progressed, I found her to be stubborn, impulsive, and ignorant. She was the type of person who would cross boundaries with her nose in the air instead of calculating the repercussions, and despite how strong her first love was, it unnerved me. I’m sure the author meant for her to be someone passionately in love with Serey, so much that the distance of half the world was not enough to separate them. I still found myself hating Anne Greves. I think I found myself most sorry for Will, a man hired for research to locate and count all the dead bodies resulting from Pol Pot’s regime.
In this story, the chapters are short. The writing is written as if Anne, in her elder age, has finally gotten the courage to sit down and write the testimony of Serey’s search for his family in a land driven by murder and chaos, as well as her intense love for him. A strong correlation emerges between her memory recreating history and history shaping her. I’m sure that’s something every person can admit to. Yet, in the context of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it had a huge impact on Anne and Serey. Not because a family is missing a son or a brother, but because there are physical and mental barriers from a person recovering that piece of their life. As Anne goes on her journey to search for Serey, you move with her as her memory recalls all the small moments she shared with him. Some of them, she cherishes more when he’s not around. And in others, she realizes that memory is not as comforting as it was before she knew the truth. Also for Serey, the memory of his parents and his brother kept alive his drive to find them, but that very memory recreated a completely different family.
The characters, as witness to the chaos in Cambodia, show the barriers in confronting their memory. The silence and aches of a past they don’t want known emerges from the pages, though the main characters are consumed with finding and revealing their loved ones. The issues, not just with the law, or lack of law, become obvious. However, I could not find myself sympathizing for Anne Greves. I sympathized with Serey, with Will, with Mau, with the people of Cambodia. But not for Anne. Maybe I’m being cynical because I’ve never experienced a love, let alone a first love at the age of 16, to keep me so brokenhearted over an entire decade that it would compel me to fly across the world while intending to ignore all laws and dangers, particularly of a nation that had little to no infrastructure at the time. And maybe that was exactly what the passion of the love story was about. I just couldn’t relate to it nor imagine it.
I give The Disappeared two out of five stars.
Stefanie Field is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Relations in Bangkok. She is a lover of books and hopes to promote reading culture in Thailand.