Great love stories are inseparable from tragedy. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet: for the iconic lovers in literature, things always end badly. Kim Echlin ups the ante in her third novel by placing her lovers against the backdrop of Pol Pot’s genocidal massacre in Cambodia.
Anne Greves is a teenager in Montreal when she first encounters Serey, a Cambodian exile five years her senior, who has lost touch with his family since the borders of his native country were closed. Drawn together by a shared love of the blues, and over the objections of the girl’s father, Anne and Serey begin an affair. When the Vietnamese invade Cambodia and the borders are thrown open, Serey returns home to search for his family and vanishes, prompting Anne to embark on a dangerous journey to Phnom Penh to find him.
Echlin’s project in The Disappeared is undeniably ambitious: she attempts to portray the twin currents of memory and desire while at the same time dramatizing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, whose operative principle was “Better to kill an innocent person than to leave an enemy alive.” And she attempts to do all this in under 200 pages. It is perhaps inevitable that the novel’s execution fails to live up to its ambition.
Finding a language to describe the vicissitudes of the heart is notoriously difficult. Any novelist who addresses the subject of romantic longing risks devolving into mawkishness, and Echlin frequently succumbs to this temptation. In some cases, the language is merely clichéd (“I was drowning in you”); in others, it employs overheated metaphor to communicate ineffable desire (“You were my crucifixion, my torture and rebirth”). When the lovers are reunited in Cambodia, the writing becomes even more overwrought: Anne opens herself to Serey as if she “could be unzippered front and back,” the lovers embrace as though “giving agonized birth to each other,” and are likened to “cannibals swallowing flesh and breathing prayers.”
Echlin’s inability to adequately capture the lovers’ longing also infects the political aspects of the story, as when a pregnant Anne witnesses a Cambodian troubadour “singing his anguish to the sky,” which is juxtaposed with an image of “babies tossed and shot in the air.” The sequence should be horrific, but the overwritten comparison denudes it of much of its impact.
The Disappeared is ultimately a love story, which means that things don’t turn out well. Anne returns to Montreal where she is implored “for love’s sake” to tell her story “before there’s nothing left.” This sequence, shot through with heartache and loss, should serve as the cathartic apotheosis of the book. Sadly, it is betrayed by the sentimentality of what has gone before.