Not long ago I was having a text conversation with Kathy (Bermudaonion) about the Khmer Rouge, the Communist party that ruled Cambodia in the mid to late 70's and were known for their brutality and genocide practices. Kathy was listening to this book, and I had just finished re-watching "The Killing Fields", and we were both shaking our heads at how this kind of horror could have occurred while we were in the US living our lives and being clueless.
"The Killing Fields" is an intense movie that thrusts you right into the action of those years, and I couldn't help but want to know more about it. I was thrilled when Kathy offered to send me the audio.
Synopsis: Ung Loung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge army stormed her home town of Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1975. Prior to that, she had lived a comfortable life in an upper-middle class family, one of seven children of a government official. But on that fateful day, their lives were irreversibly altered. Forced to evacuate the city, they spent their days walking and hiding and scrapping for food. Over time, the family is separated in order to survive, but most of them end up in work camps where hard labor is enforced despite starvation. Ung is trained as a child soldier, a role for which she is well-suited because of her spirited nature. It is only in 1979, when the Vietnamese conquer the Khmer Rouge, that Ung's family (what is left of them that is) is reunited.
In this tragic and courageous memoir, the reader receives a first-person view of exactly how it all went down...the exhaustion, the effects of malnutrition, the executions. But this is also a story of hope, of the power of love and family, and of the interminable will to survive.
My thoughts: I have mixed emotions about this book. One of my goals was to learn more about this era in history, and that was achieved. I also felt that the facts of this woman's life is almost beyond comprehension, and needs to be heard and appreciated. Not only did Ung fight like a hellcat to live from a very young age, she went on to become a human rights activist and a national spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She is a super hero!
But there were elements that really bothered me within the narration. Most of the events that took place in this memoir happened when she was aged 5 through 10. So when she speaks in first person from the viewpoint of a 5 year old, and talks of a seething hate of the Khmer Rouge, of wanting to kill them bare-handed, of wanting to commit suicide, and other complex adult emotions, it just rings false. She also recites many conversations between herself and family members. I realize that there has to be some elaboration here, and added insight from someone who is now an adult. But perhaps a first-person present tense point of view was not the way to go in telling her story. It bothered me to the point of distraction.
However the story is touching and meaningful, and if you can get beyond the fact that this is a reflective story told by an adult in the voice of a child, the broader picture is one that is unforgettable.
A few words about the audio production: The narrator for this audiobook was Tavia Gilbert, a new voice for me (although she really sounded familiar for some reason). I can't say that this listening experience was my favorite. Gilbert's voice is high-pitched like a young girls', which should have worked for this purpose. But it really didn't, in fact it bordered on shrill at times. I would recommend reading this book in print.
Listening length: 9 hours and 38 minutes (238 pages)
3 out of 5 stars