Friday, September 13, 2019
The Rent Collector by Camron Wright
I had to ponder The Rent Collector for a bit before even considering writing a review. There were things about it that felt a little off to me (more on that in a minute) but in general it's a fascinating story from which I learned about a place that's escaped much notice from me. Apart from the occasional book about the Vietnam War, I've seldom read much about or even mention of Cambodia.
The Rent Collector is the story of a little family in Cambodia (based on real characters but heavily fictionalized). Sang Ly and Ki Lim live in a literal dump and pick through trash to find items they can sell. Their baby, Nisay, has been sick all his life. Even when they occasionally manage to get treatment, once the antibiotics run out he goes right back to being sick.
Sopeap is a drunken woman who collects the rent monthly. When Ki Lim finds a children's book in the garbage, Sang Ly is excited. Nisay will have a little treasure. But, something remarkable happens to Sopeap when she sees the book and Sang Ly realizes the rent collector knows how to read. She asks Sopeap to teach her, so that she can better their lives. Gradually, Sopeap's former life (before the Khmer Rouge slaughtered the educated) comes out through her teaching.
I was most fascinated by the mystery of Sopeap. Who was she? How did she end up in a dump if she was an educated woman and why did she drink heavily? What had happened to her to make her such a mess?
The story is told a little like a fable and very much like the stories that Sopeap teaches Sang Ly to read. Inside the story, there are lessons. They aren't always what you want to hear. Heroes and villains may have elements of evil or humanity in them, respectively. Things may not turn out the way you expect. But, somewhere in there are the universal themes and similar tales that continue to be retold — always a journey, whether internal or external.
I glanced across a few reviews and noticed that people spotted the same things I did. Sang Ly does not sound like a poor person who lives in a dump. She has a pretty substantial vocabulary and she learns to read at a startling speed. But, I think if you focus on such details, you're missing the point.
The Rent Collector is about literature, about life, about finding the meaning in both that may or may not be hidden. If you look at it too literally, what the author is attempting to say will just buzz right past you. One of those themes was obviously that you should find beauty wherever you are. Kind of a "bloom where you're planted" thing. A little trite, maybe, but I loved the unfolding mystery of Sopeap's past, the growing friendship between Sang Ly and Sopeap, the way Sang Ly helps Sopeap find redemption, the quest for a cure for little Nisay, and the general loveliness of the storytelling.
Highly recommended - While not a 5-star read because I did occasionally have trouble with clinging to reality instead of sinking into the story itself and allowing it to envelope me like a dream, I thought it was a terrific read and it makes me want to learn more about Cambodia and its people.
I bought The Rent Collector for group discussion and I'm looking forward to my next book group meeting. I think we'll have a lot to discuss. If I feel like anything said during the discussion is worth mentioning, I'll return to post about it, after the meeting.
I didn't get any great cat photos, this week, so if I manage to snap anything tonight, I'll post it on Saturday. If not, Fiona Friday will return next week.
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