Book Review: Cambodia Noir

25814249Phnom Penh, Cambodia: the end of the line. Lawless, drug-soaked, forgotten—it’s where bad journalists go to die. For once-great war photographer Will Keller, that’s kind of a mission statement: he spends his days floating from one score to the next, taking any job that pays; his nights are a haze of sex, drugs, booze, and brawling. But Will’s spiral toward oblivion is interrupted by Kara Saito, a beautiful young woman who shows up and begs Will to help find her sister, June, who disappeared during a stint as an intern at the local paper.

* * * 

If Cambodia Noir were just another crime thriller, it would disappear back into the woodwork among the millions of other sex-drugs-rock-and-roll thrillers with fallible heroes and sultry women that could be turned into a generic B-grade action film.

But it’s not just another crime thriller.

Part of the appeal is that author Nick Seeley worked in Cambodia during 2003, the period of the book. He writes in his acknowledgments that he has attempted to capture what it was like working as an American in Cambodia during that tenuous time.

Seeley performs some gorgeous writing and his vocabulary is quite out of the ordinary (I was grateful for my tablet’s dictionary). He has a way of weaving his story around you, tendrils drawing you in even though you can hardly see where you are going.

That said, I have never felt so filthy while reading a book. I don’t think there is a single character that appeals to me. They are all liars, and frauds, and their lifestyles are pretty deplorable. I mean, they’ve all had their struggles and one must not judge and so on; but what really got me was the blind eye the characters turned on the child trafficking and abuse. (I’m cognisant of the fact that Seeley wrote these characters to BE deplorable, but I still don’t like them. It’s the reaction he aimed for, I am certain.)

I have never been to Cambodia, but I had to keep reminding myself that, for the purposes of the plot, a very specific view was being given. I am certain that all of Cambodia is not quite as rough and tumble as in Cambodia Noir. (I hope. Because I still want to travel there someday.)

What I mean to say is, I could not quite get a grasp on the country – but then, it is a work of fiction.There were images that rang true – the villages along the Mekong, the sidewalk bars with their plastic chairs and tables – things I remember from Vietnam. So I know its real. But there is more than one reality here.

“Cambo only existed for her through the lens of those places we created: a world built to reflect us back at ourselves, a world of poverty and deference.”

The two protagonists, Will and June, are just mysterious enough to keep the reader going. You want to get to know them, understand, and they damn well stay just out of reach! I still don’t really understand June and her family, but maybe that’s the point. If you’re looking for a novel where all the ends come together at the end, don’t hold your breath.

Of note, Cambodia Noir is a good study of mental illness and drug dependence, and the experience of losing oneself, and in the process, seeking the darkest place to despair.

“I thought that by coming here, I could be someone different. It seems I was right… but I don’t know who that is.”

It is a study of trauma and grief, and what happens when it is doubled by entering into ever-increasing situations of violence.

It is a study of identity and how what we choose to remember may shape our very fates.

And that is why this is not just another crime thriller.

cambodia noir quote

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of this book via NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest review.


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  2. Robert says:

    I just finished reading the book and as someone who has been to Cambodia I can assure you that the Cambodia presented in the book is nothing like the real thing. I have quite a few friends who were born in Cambodia and they are taken aback by the picture this book presents. Not to worry, if you ever do go you will enjoy yourself. As for me, I question whether the author ever has been to Cambodia and most likely made everything up.

    1. barefootmegz says:

      I once traveled for four months with a very large group of people (most of them Westerners) and it was interesting to see how their own biases affected their perceptions of the countries we visited. What I mean to say is: I think the author’s very American biases probably obscured the Cambodia you know and love into the Cambodia he presented in the book. Thank you for sharing your experience; I am relieved that the real Cambodia is different. I fully intend to go there in the near future.

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