In this death-defying family saga, Lau chronicles her slow, agonizing escape from Cambodia during the country’s gruesome revolution in the 1970s.
Lau describes her parents’ upbringing, their arranged marriage, and her own childhood in a claustrophobic neighborhood. Lau was still a young girl when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, and she maintains the perspective of a child throughout, as when her passenger train was raided by death squads. “Those captured were on their hands and knees at gunpoint,” she says. “As time dragged on, the chaos and the delay seemed an eternity. My bladder was at the point of rupture, so I held and held and even used my hands to stop the dam from bursting.” Each chapter brings some new horror: massacres, midnight firefights, laborers worked to death, a harrowing march through land mine–infested mountains. In one scene, a starving man ate too much food and died. The book stoically documents these tragedies, with Lau’s honesty and attention to detail bringing that appalling era into focus. From the earliest chapters, Lau’s family considers fleeing to Thailand, but even if they reach the border alive, Thai security may turn them away, sentencing them to certain death. The story has its share of symbolism, too: Lau’s father ran a camera shop, and when the family was forced into a labor camp, he retained his cameras; the useless equipment became a metaphor for the stable life they lost. Later, Meiyeng maintained a verdant garden. Passing soldiers conclude that Meiyeng would never contemplate escape after putting so much work into her vegetable beds. Through it all, Lau’s mother remained stern and strong. Her name, Meiyeng, translates to “beautiful hero,” and Lau credits the unflappable matron with the family’s survival. The sickening suspense will haunt readers to the end.
Celebrates survival but also provides a street-level view of Khmer atrocities in a powerful reminder of what can happen when revolutionaries turn tyrannical.