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Keeley, a fiction-writer who's better known for his distinguished translations of modern Greek poetry, has fashioned a rather stiff and remote novel out of the same shriving materials already dramatized in William Shawcross' The Quality of Mercy, the film The Killing Fields, and elsewhere: the sorrow and the pity of Cambodia ever since 1975; the genocide, the forced relocations, the shame of the Thai refugee camps, the cynicism and impotence of the relief agencies. Part of the story is told through the journals of 40-ish Phal Sameth, a woman of mixed heritage (Chinese/French/Khmer) with a cosmopolitan past: her lovers have included an American, Tom Macpherson, who now works in Washington for the State Department. When Phnom Penh falls to the Khmer Rouge, Sameth leaves the city, survives as best she can, picks up an ""adopted"" teenage daughter named Thirith, lives in the camps--but ultimately is sent back from Thailand to Cambodia. Meanwhile, Macpherson gets hold of Sameth's diaries and tries, without much success, to rescue her. But his son Tim does make contact with Thirith. . . whom he marries so that she, if not Sameth, can leave at last. As a rescue-mission thriller, however, Keeley's narrative is only very sporadically compelling: there's little tension despite the inherent drama of the desperate machinations (guns exchanged for refugees), of the frustrating battles against official indifference. Nor, on the other hand, is this effective as a novel of character: the only fully drawn personality is Sameth--and she is seen chiefly at a distance, through her no-longer-fresh diary entries. All in all: serious, well-intentioned treatment of one of history's nightmares--but often no more involving than a newspaper background-piece, with little to hold readers already familiar with the Cambodian tragedy.

Pub Date: May 3rd, 1985
Publisher: Simon & Schuster