In Buford’s thriller, an American diplomat stationed in Southeast Asia works undercover against child sex trafficking and pays a steep personal price.
Chris Kelly’s first assignment for the U.S. State Department is in Cambodia, manning a window that processes applicants for visas to the United States. It’s menial drudgery, but in his free time, he also volunteers for the International Rescue Mission, an organization that aggressively opposes the sex trafficking of minors. Chris works in tandem with the IRM and the local police, posing as a customer seeking child prostitutes in order to expose those who run the trafficking rings. A police raid on a hotel rescues dozens of underage victims, who are then shuttled to a shelter in Ang Keo. However, these girls were “owned” by Chea Phyrom, a thuggish gangster with a history of brutal violence who’s also the nephew of Gen. Thul Chorn, Cambodia’s prime minister. Chea is enraged when he learns his business was targeted and orders the girls recaptured at gunpoint. In retaliation, he orders the beating of one of the IRM volunteers and the kidnapping of Chris’ 6-year-old adopted daughter, Mai. Frustrated that neither the American nor Cambodian governments are acting swiftly enough, Chris takes matters into his own hands, but he not only risks losing his wife and career in the process, but also destroying delicate relations between two nations. Debut author Buford lived with his family in Cambodia in 2004, and his novel’s plot is inspired by actual crimes, which lends the story a general air of authenticity. The author unpacks difficult problems by showing them from a variety of competing third-person perspectives—those of the children who suffer grimly, the older sex workers who resent any assault on their ability to make a living, and even the sexual predators who travel the globe. The story marches forward at a lively clip, and the emotional tension remains taut, like a tensile cord on the brink of snapping. This is a sad tale that’s often difficult to read, given the subject matter, but not hopelessly despairing and certainly edifying.
An intelligent drama about the shameful, systematic abuse of the world’s most vulnerable.