Friday 15 July 2016

When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

A book detailing a child’s survival in 1970 Cambodia is not a novel. Highs and lows orchestrated by the author are absent here. This is not a feel-good story. It is a stark revelation of what it meant to be a child under one of the most ruthless regimes in Asia.

This is the early 70s, when Cambodia became an experiment in radical socialism, and the Khmer Rouge took power and attempted to return the country to its 'pure', peasant history. Intellectuals were persecuted, farmers lauded and the entire population coerced into forced labour, resulting in mass malnutrition, disease, death and genocide. Figures vary but the commonly accepted fact is that two million people died, which equated to 25% of the country’s population.

Him’s experience tells her story from the inside. The explosion of the Vietnam war onto their own soil, the break-up of her family, the loyal bonds of blood and country, the grinding misery of starvation and physical deprivation all take us with her, step by uncertain step. Her description of the ‘hospital’ in which her mother lay is almost unbearable.

All this seen through a child’s eyes, conditioned to good manners and respect, to be thrown into a feral environment. Survival, food and reducing empathy to its narrowest circles is at the heart of this moving and powerful narrative.

It’s a tough read, taking the reader along a bleak journey, with small spots of sunshine lit by human kindness. Yet all is overshadowed by a power-hungry ideology and its crushing hold on the population.

This is an important book, the human face of a political tragedy, and a sobering read for enthusiasts of dystopian YA.

You’ll enjoy this is you liked: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Dymick, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Minaret by Leila Aboulela

Avoid if you dislike: Harsh truths about survival, extreme regimes and a child's eye view

Ideal Accompaniments: Fish-heads in rice, cold water and the theme to The Killing Fields

Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Available on Amazon

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