The struggles of a Cambodian farming family.
Each chapter of Lightman's novel focuses on a different member of a single Cambodian family at different times in their history. The mother, Ryna, is obsessed with bringing to justice a man she recognizes as her father's killer from the Khmer Rouge era. Second daughter Nita seems to have lucked out when her parents marry her to a rich man while the eldest daughter, Thida, is sent to work in a factory and the youngest daughter, Sreypov, dreams of finishing her education. Kamal, the only son, suffers from unrequited love for a beautiful city girl, and Pich, the father, is quite literally haunted. The title refers to Ryna's advice to her daughters to keep the "three flames" or virtues for women: not revealing family secrets, honoring one's parents, and serving one's husband. Novelist Lightman (In Praise of Wasting Time, 2018, etc.) is the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with women in Cambodia. While he clearly understands the many obstacles impoverished Cambodian women must overcome if they're going to live more fulfilling lives, the book's focus on a different kind of social problem in each section makes the characters feel more like symbols than individuals whose unique quirks and personality traits will drive the story forward.
Almost unrelentingly grim, but there are moments of unexpected grace that provide the characters, and readers, with hope.