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An Unqualified 5 y.o. Adult-Child Narrator
am 18. Juni 2000
This is one of those very difficult book to review because it has so many facets: craft, history, extremely early childhood memories, lost and grief. The subject is engaging, but the style and literary effort are not.
While I find the latter parts of the book interesting because of the humanity, or lack thereof, of Ung's experiences as a child in a labor camp, I feel somewhat distracted by her narrative voice in the first third of the book. Writting about extremely early childhood memories is a very difficult task (Ung is a five-year-old at the beginning of the book, and a ten-year-old at the end). And her voice is somewhat cumbersome throughout the book. She has what is best described as an adult-child narrative voice, which, of course, at times can be profoundly philosophical or sentimental to the point of being syrupy. I find it important to keep this in mind when reading her description of her father, a former government spy and police chief, as a very kind and loving man--very much an angel on every account. Naturally given the state of Southeast Asia at the time (I am well versed in SE Asia history and culture, having worked, travelled and worked in the region for over fifteen years), this is highly unlikely for anyone with such a resume. Also she describes her family as being middle class. This is false. Although the middle class is almost non-existent in Cambodia at the time, no middle class family can have three cars, several motorcycles and maids like Ung's family. So what we have here actually is a conflict in narration. We expect the "adult-child" narrator describing her experience with the "assumed" depth and judgment of an adult; however, Ung uses another approach, one completely devoid of the honesty and impartially of an adult. Yet, this is not to say that the suffering Ung and her family endured in the labor camps were real. Indeed, it was real, perhaps, even more real than any writer can fully describe.
This is a good book, an important book; however, I feel that the author and her editor did not fully "qualify" the narrative voice. After all, this is being sold as "non-fiction", "real accounts" and "survivor's tale". What Ung doesn't remember or know, she fabricates and speculates in dream sequences. But, frankly, how many of us remember anything from when we were five years old, much less with any depth. In the end, if the editors had paid less attention to the market force and urge Ung to write more honestly or at least to qualify her memories, this would have been an unshakeable work.
For 5-stars memoirs, I highly recommend Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt and Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham.