The Disappeared, Canadian Kim Echlin’s poignant love story set against Cambodia’s troubled history, has two epigraphs: the first, a verse celebrating the destruction of all culture before the Year Zero, and the second, a brief message. It reads “Tell others”—a wishful implication that even after a national tragedy, there will be someone to mourn the missing. As the U.N.-sanctioned trials for Cambodian genocide continue (now almost into their second year), Echlin’s novel is a devastating reminder of that time, a fictional look at one of the lowest points of the 20th century.
Echlin’s heroine, Anne Greves, was 16 when she first met Serey in a Montreal blues club more than 20 years ago. She was in high school, and he was a Cambodian college student who had left his country at the beginning of Pol Pot’s regime. Their attraction was immediate. In no time, Anne was dividing her time between Serey’s cramped yellow-walled apartment and smoky clubs, with little time left over for high school or her widowed father. But Serey missed his family, and when the borders to his country reopened, he returned, never to be heard from. After a decade of silence, Anne convinces herself that she’s spotted Serey in a television documentary. She travels to Phnom Pehn and though she locates him, he remains emotionally elusive and secretive about his family as well as his job. Soon Serey disappears again and Anne’s search becomes an obsession, leading her to desperation and even madness.
Echlin chooses to have Anne tell her story as if addressing Serey directly. The dual first-and second-person “I” and “you” create a cadenced momentum and immediacy to the prose. This rhythm is consistent with Anne’s resolve, which only increases as she locates and then loses Serey again. The novel’s style is lush and poetic, but there are times when Anne’s erotic memories and despair undermine the force of her story. It is almost a relief when she encounters Will, a forensic scientist, who helps out at a crucial moment and whose plainspoken sympathy re-grounds the book.
From 1975 to 1979, 1.7 million Cambodians died, some for just remembering what life had been like before the Khmer Rouge. The Disappeared is a passionate and emotionally wrenching novel that forces us to remember and provides witness to what was lost.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.