Last December, Amy at My Friend Amy sent me this novel as part of the Book Blogger Holiday Swap. She had noticed my interest in Canadian literature and told me how moved she had been by this story. I am glad she shared it with me, but my feelings about it are quite mixed.
Kim Echlin’s novel (novella?) The Disappeared, which was a finalist for the Giller prize in 2009, is a first-person narrative addressed to you, Anne Greves’s partner. It is a kind of memoir relating her passionate and painful relationship with Serey, a Cambodian refugee whom she fell in love with when she was sixteen.
The novel opens as a short story with a short episode that happened thirty years previous to the time of narration. Such an opening draws the reader directly into the narrative, but also has the effect of confusing us. Indeed, it is immediately interrupted and it is only much later in the novel that we discover the context of this episode. Following this opening is a first-person narrative addressed to “you,” whom is soon revealed as being Serey, a Cambodian refugee the narrator met and fell in love with in Montreal when she was sixteen. The narrative is broken, shifting from present suffering to past events, while also being interrupted by flashbacks providing us with a short history of Anne Greves (the narrator). The chapters are often short and begin and end abruptly, thus adding to the fragmentation created by the temporal shifts. This narrative structure, which attempts to convey Anne’s grief, is in itself interesting as it demands efforts from the reader. Little by little we are able to put the jigsaw pieces together and understand the story and the motivation behind Anne’s narrative.
Most of the first part, except for the digressions afore-mentioned, focuses on Anne’s relationship with her lover until the day he decides to go back to Cambodia to look for his family after the reopening of the borders at the end of Pol Pott’s dictatorship. A decade elapses before Anne takes a plane to go there and look for him. The second part is then set in Cambodia and relates Anne’s search for Serey and their life together. It also tries to convey the unspeakable: Serey’s silence is in stark contrast with Anne’s pouring of words through the telling of her story. It attempts to render the incomprehension between the two lovers: how can this Westerner understand the suffering endured by Cambodians like Serey who are the victims, directly or indirectly, of the Khmer Rouge genocide?
This novel addresses a sore reality – Pol Pott’s dictatorship and the years of suffering that followed it – and it is often heartbreaking and powerful. It is a story of loss, Anne’s own losses, that of her lover and unborn child, and the losses of all the Cambodians whose family members have disappeared literally or figuratively through political treasons. However, I found Anne’s egocentrism too irritating at times. Echlin is at once trying to narrate a tragic love story and a historical tragedy. I find that too often the former undermines the latter in this narrative of grief.