“In precise, evocative prose (“In Phnom Penh, we were living in a house of fractured glass that was on the verge of shattering”), Allen tells the incredible story of her aunt Siv Eng, who fought to survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1970s Cambodia. Told in the first person, the memoir begins with Siv Eng’s idyllic life as a university student and quickly descends into increasingly nightmarish scenarios as the new regime took hold. She and her family are forced out of their homes, marched to labor camps, and separated. Siv Eng winds up in prison while trying to help her sister, and makes friends only to see them executed. Then the war’s tide turns and a series of unlikely events leads to Siv Eng’s liberation and reunion with her family in America.
The episodic storytelling allows the reader to slowly absorb the horror of Siv Eng’s experiences. Grim scenes of violence are balanced with memories both sweet and sad, and the importance of family life is emphasized. Siv Eng’s story isn’t sugar-coated, but she gives the reader a thread of hope even in the direst of situations. This is also a story about faith, as Siv Eng sees various signs and dreams that eventually lead her to Christianity.
Siv Eng pointedly mentions a lack of interest in politics, but this is a story of ideology vs. humanity. If it weren’t for the kindness of certain chiefs, guards, and soldiers, Siv Eng would be dead. Her will to live and see her family again are inspirational. Allen has a remarkable ability to distill Siv Eng’s stories into a smooth, if harrowing, reading experience, and readers will find it impossible to look away.
Takeaway: This harrowing, gripping story of survival in the face of horrific events will equally appeal to students of Cambodian history and fans of poignant memoirs.
Great for fans of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields.”