The Disappeared was one of the inaugural works published under Penguin Canada’s new imprint, Hamish Hamilton Canada. As such, you would expect it to be a choice intended to to be somewhat high profile, with the potential for award nominations. A title to set the bar high for quality of titles under the new imprint. The Disappeared certainly was attention-getting – as of the publication date (2009) it had been eight years since the publication of Dagmar’s Daughter, Echlin’s second novel, and her first novel, Elephant Winter, was nominated for the 1997 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. The Disappeared went on to be short-listed for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Unfortunately, I found The Disappeared to be, at best, a mediocre novel that in no way lives up to the potential of the subject matter (nor, for that matter, the quality that a Giller Award nomination implies.)
The book starts in the 1970s when 16-year old Anne Greves meets and falls passionately in love with 21-year old Serey, a Cambodian student in exile during the dictatorship of Pol Pot. Serey returns to Cambodia shortly thereafter when the borders are re-opened, and Anne does not hear from him again until she thinks she sees him in news footage of a demonstration. She then travels to Cambodia to find him and re-establish their relationship.
The single biggest problem with this book had everything to do with its length. At 235 pages Echlin tries to cram in both the story of Cambodia and a love story. Consequently, both are done a disservice by the brevity of the book. Ultimately, I felt that this was a story that could have perhaps been placed anywhere in which events are insurmountable or conspire to keep lovers apart. The story of Cambodia deserves better than to simply be used as a backdrop for two lovers – particularly two lovers such as Serey and Anne, where the love story itself is somewhat unfathomable.
The other difficulties I had with the novel are more ones of style, and could perhaps be considered personal preference. Generally speaking, I prefer clean writing. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy detailed or descriptive writing, but I do not enjoy writing that is all words and no substance. Reading The Disappeared had a strange quality, somewhat like looking at those stereographic pictures that were popular during the 1990s. Occasionally, if you are content to let the words – indeed, entire passages – just wash over you, you can perhaps glean a faint image of the intent of her writing. But, like the stereographic picture, if you try to focus on the image, to “unblur your eyes” you find a mess of words that cannot be assembled into a picture.
The light in May’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. … The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion.
The Disappeared, page 3
Incidentally, another one of my big irritations is when an author lights upon some metaphor or turn of phrase and then proceeds to use it repeatedly throughout the book. The idea of a “pinprick of light” in one’s eyes is one that Echlin abuses to no end throughout the book.
However, there are moments of beautiful writing where Echlin refrains from the overly studied, overt attempts at “evocative” writing, and crafts a sentence that is graceful in its simplicity. Her best writing comes later in the novel in a few short chapters where she uses a clipped, staccato rhythm to briefly relay someone’s history or personal story under Pol Pot. She proves here that in two pages and a handful of sentences she can make the reader feel the fear and horror of the events she describes. It is what makes her reliance on overly stylized, deliberately obscure writing that much more frustrating.
Sokha was only trying to survive, you said. Your eyes were dark and dry.
They opened up the man’s chest and the older man plunged his hands in, said, One man’s liver is another’s food.
The Disappeared, page 128
Perhaps my greatest frustration with this book, though, came from the research. Whenever a book is set within a historical framework, the author has decisions to make regarding the depth of detail and the balance between actual documented events and fictionalized events. Generally speaking, The Disappeared has a fairly light hand when it comes to historically documented events, in favor of the relationship aspect of the book. I am not sure if Echlin received a grant to visit Cambodia, or the depth of her research, but even when an author chooses to refrain from excessive historical detail I do not expect to find the few historical references to be available on the first page of wikipedia. A quote about the infamous prison and torture facility, Tuol Sleng:
Each picture refuses anonymity. Boy number 17. He has no shirt and they have safety-pinned his number into his skin. A small woman with the number 17-5-78 pinned on her black shirt stares into the camera and at the bottom of the photo a child’s small hand clings to her right sleeve.
The Disappeared, page 109
Visit the wikipedia page. Half-way down the page on right hand side is the photo of victim 17-5-78, and below it is a mosaic of other victims with boy number 17 on the second row. This is particularly egregious considering that on page 224 Echlin has Anne Greves mention watching a film of all 5,000 victims of Tuol Sleng. Then why choose two photos off the first page of wikipedia?
Then there was this:
But she nodded to the bamboo walls and answered in a soft voice, Ears everywhere. Eyes as many as the eyes of a pineapple.
The Disappeared, page 93
Now, perhaps this is a famous saying, although my own Google search did not reflect it as such. Where I did come across this quote, although in not quite the same wording, was in the New York Times obituary of Dith Pran, the famous photojournalist who escaped from Cambodia and whose story the film The Killing Fields was based on. It turns out that this was one of his most famous quotes regarding his theory photojournalism, in which he stated “You have to be a pineapple. You have to have a hundred eyes.”
It may have been coincidence in both of these cases, but I found it particularly jarring. I came away from the book feeling as though perhaps it had been researched exclusively via Google.
I hate when my hopes for a book are so high – it makes the disappointment that much more acute. Unfortunately, I was tremendously disappointed by this book.
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada), 2009
Hardcover, 239 pages
Review from library copy