The novel The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin, is one that defines how love can surpass not only generations but countries as well. The story comes through so naturally – the narrator not hesitating to let true statements of the heart come through when need be – that, by the end of the novel, I felt as if this was a story told to me personally by a good friend.
Echlin takes you on a journey with the narrator, Anne, through thirty years of her life, starting in Montreal, where she meets and falls in love with a young man, Serey, from Cambodia, to the devastating, war-torn streets of Phonm Penh as she looks for him after he “disappears” from Montreal to look for his family, to her life years after she is forced to return to Canada. The “disappeared” refers not only to Serey as Anne chases him through different stages of his life, twice desperate after he slips through her fingers. It also refers to who Anne becomes as she loses the identity she formed while with Serey and to the lost people who are left in Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime and Cambodian genocide that play a role in the book. The book emphasizes how not even war and fear can stand in the way of searching for the one you love, but it can certainly make it more difficult and more devastating. After reading the book, this becomes clear: “Time is no healer.” Even after thirty years of not having him in her life anymore, Anne is clearly not “healed” as she writes the book to Serey, for Serey.
Echlin easily combines Anne’s story as she searches for Serey with the story of Cambodia during the genocide (1975-79) and the Vietnamese occupation (1979-89). The details she includes about the state of Cambodia as it tries to rebuild itself are strong images; however, the images and wonderings of Anne as she searches for Serey are even stronger: “I did not tell you the pain of receiving no word. I did not tell you how I wondered if a human being can invent love. I did not tell you how I began to notice that people marry every day not for love but because they are well matched, or lonely.” Her life story becomes enveloped by searching for him and wondering how she can love someone so much so that all reasoning and clear thought disappears. The fact that the book is written in first person to Serey is a true testament to how much he has affected her life – he becomes the “you” that appears in the narration, as Anne literally tells her story to Serey. Hers is a love that sees no danger in going to a country she barely knows and walking the streets, talking to strangers, putting her life in danger merely to locate him.
The book is told in a backwards fashion; she starts thirty years after she first met Serey and narrates their brief time together in Montreal, his leaving to return to Cambodia to find his family, and her leaving for Cambodia to hopefully find him. She also ends the book thirty years later, in her “present time.” Framing the book this way allows for their story to unfold rather nicely, narrating events and emotions they shared together and ones she experienced on her own. But the language she uses is definitely one of love, as she raises several questions about romance, relationships, family love, and human beings in general throughout the book – not only of she and Serey, but also of the horrific setting of the disparity in Cambodia. For instance:
Why do some people live a comfortable life and others live one that is horror-filled? What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep on eating while others starve? If women, children, and old people were being murdered a hundred miles from here, would we not run to help? Why do we stop this decision of the heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of a hundred?
Echlin is able to uniquely combine her own love story with Serey with a separate love for Cambodia. As she wonders through her relationship with Serey, she wanders – literally wanders – through the killing fields and other significant places in Cambodia, developing a love for the lost country. She even learns to speak Khmer which she states is the “language of the man I love.”
One of the most notable things about Echlin’s writing style is that she uses no quotation marks for her dialogue. Since the novel is written as if Anne is pouring out all of her thoughts to Serey, it seems very natural for her to not to use quotation marks, as she is remembering the dialogue and conversations in her head.
By the end of the book, I had a motivation for researching the history of Cambodia (as the brunt of the violence came before my time) and seeing the scenery for myself in pictures. Also by the end, I felt as if I knew Anne personally – that I had just read a long letter from her about her own life. The ability to leave this kind of impression upon a reader – getting them interested not only in the story, but also in the scenery in which the book is set – is a tremendous skill. The pages are truly kept turning by how she relates the story to the human condition – as a reader, I was not only touched by the strength of the love Anne has for Serey, but also by the heartfelt desire to travel to Cambodia and help its people.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a love story that is not drenched in hand-maidens or dukes, and enjoys reading novels placed in exotic yet devastated locales. And, if anything, this sentence from the book about the writer’s appreciation for humanity should incite one to read the book: “There are many wonders in the world. But none so wonderful as a human being.”