My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A moving story of a royal family’s exile from Phnom Penh in the days of the Khmer Rouge. Time is marked by the birthdays of the narrator who was seven at the beginning of the novel; otherwise day runs into day to the reader, as it probably would to those experiencing the relocation and forced labor and hunger. At least twice the dark irony of “improvements” upon the ways of the peasant rice farmers appears, “improvements” that ignore accumulated wisdom and inevitably fail.
Sometimes that wisdom is told as overheard conversations. Occasionally the child narrator’s observations and questions are convincingly childlike; however, overall, the depth of thought and beauty of description is more adult. And yet even though it was difficult to remember the age of the narrator, I am not sure I would have wanted to give up the language with which the tale was told. Perhaps an omniscient narrator would have worked better. Still, no narrator choice is without loss as well as gain.
There is a point where the mother decodes a note; I wondered both, Why so late? and Would she have been able to use the information if she had understood it earlier? Also I wondered at the two dimensional nature of the child military, the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps that is all a seven to ten year old child could see, but rarely is someone pure evil.
There is more beauty than flaw in this novel, and it provides insight into a time it behooves us to understand.