Seng’s debut memoir is a portrait of survival, compassion, and triumph of the human spirit.
In 1975, the author was a fourth-year medical student in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge communist army decimated the Cambodian city. He and 23 family members were tortured and forced to work in labor camps, where, writes Seng, historians estimate that more than 1.7 million people died. In 1979, the remaining prisoners were freed, but Seng walked home alone, because—with the possible exception of one sister, whom he never saw again—his entire family had died. This gut-wrenching narrative aptly begins with a quote from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s book Night. Much like that story of the Jewish Holocaust experience, this account contains unforgettably nightmarish anecdotes—such as one in which the Khmer Rouge forced children to collect bones from corpses, crush them, and spread them like fertilizer. Also like Wiesel, Seng questions why God would allow such atrocities. However, this story of survival shimmers with hope. Determined to stay alive, Seng ate rats and volunteered for deeply unpleasant work—such as shoveling human feces—that might earn him extra food. Once freed, he and his future wife escaped by bicycle to a refugee camp in Thailand, where an American friend helped them immigrate to the United States. Seng’s page-turning prose is often poetic, as when he describes his family’s conversations about the Khmer Rouge as “rumors passing from person to person like butterflies flitting from blossom to blossom.” Richly detailed, vivid descriptions abound, and several bittersweet family photos add further emotion to already gripping scenes. (Seng includes a photo of his friend from the refugee camp, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won an Academy Award for his acting in the movie The Killing Fields.) Easy-to-follow footnotes complement the personal narrative for those unfamiliar with the Cambodian genocide; indeed, this book would work well in a college curriculum.
A thoroughly engrossing and deeply moving life story.