A slight but moving debut about life in Cambodia during the Pol Pot reign.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in the 1970s, they ushered in one of the bloodiest and cruelest of regimes. A Communist of astonishing ferocity, Pol Pot ordered the cities emptied and all of their inhabitants sent to “reeducation centers” in backcountry jungles and fields. Millions died. We witness this tragedy through the eyes of Ona Ny, a Cambodian wife and mother of three who lived peacefully on her father’s rice plantation in the years leading up to the revolution. At first, Ona and her husband Eng greeted the Khmer Rouge as liberators from the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Lon Nol. Soon, however, it became clear that the new regime would be far crueler than the old. Ona, in fact, had an inkling of this when she had a vision of the Buddha weeping, and she begged Eng to take her and the children to Thailand to stay with an uncle there. But Eng refused to leave his homeland, and the family ended up in a camp where they were set to work on pointless “jobs” (building roads to nowhere, digging and filling up holes) that served no purpose but to bring death from exhaustion. Ona, however, came to the attention of the camp’s sadistic commandant, who asked her to look after his own young children. Only by ingratiating herself to him in this way did she manage to survive, along with her husband and children, and outlive the regime. After the Khmer Rouge fell, Ona and her family were transferred to a refugee camp in Thailand and eventually resettled in California. Eng was a broken man, but Ona adjusted to life in America and her children went on to successful and happy careers.
Really an extended sketch as much as a novel, but nevertheless chilling and affecting, narrated simply, without melodrama or bombast.