Alice Pung, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Black Inc, Book review, Cambodia, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung

Non-fiction – memoir; Kindle edition; Black Inc; 254 pages; 2013.

It seems fitting to review Alice Pung’s memoir Her Father’s Daughter on the 44th anniversary of the end of the Cambodian Civil War (17 January 1968 – 17 April 1975) and the beginning of a new deadly period in Cambodian history.

When the war ended, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (aka the Khmer Rouge) took power. During its four-year reign, the Khmer Rouge arrested, tortured and executed more than a million citizens in what is now known as the Cambodian genocide. (Around a million more died of disease and starvation.)

Alice Pung, an Australian-born writer, editor and lawyer, is the daughter of two Cambodians who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Her parents sought asylum in Australia in 1980, and this memoir charts Alice’s early adulthood when she unearths the story of her father’s frightening past and comes to understand some of his peculiar, over-protective behaviours.

A startling story

Her Father’s Daughter is a startling and often beautiful story, grim in places but also warm and funny and heartfelt — and totally engrossing.

Unusually for a memoir, it is written in the third person (perhaps, I suspect, to provide some emotional distance for the writer), which lends it an other-worldly, almost fictional, feel.

Her father had named her Alice because he believed this new country to be a Wonderland, where anything was possible if only she went along with his unfailing belief. His patriotism rang truer and more annoying than any bogan supremacist’s. ‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.’ This to him was the most beautiful national anthem in the world. There was golden soil and wealth for toil. Who wanted to be anywhere else? In other countries, where their anthems were all about rinsing the land in blood of the brothers?

It examines Pung’s growing realisation that her father has been deeply traumatised by past events at the same time that she, herself, is trying to stand on her own two feet as a young independent woman. Keen to forge out on her own, she’s often annoyed by her father’s meddling, his inability to understand her need to travel and explore the world, his hurt when she won’t heed his advice to settle down and get married, to eschew a potential career in law for one helping him run his Retravision store.

To live a happy life, he believes, you need a healthy short-term memory, a slate that can be wiped clean every morning, like one of those toys he bought for his daughter when she was young – an Etch A Sketch. If you turned it upside down and shook it, your art disappeared.

It’s only when she begins to dig into her father’s story that she is able to understand that his fears for her future and her happiness come from a very dark place. She travels to China and Cambodia, meeting family members and other survivors, and hearing their harrowing tales of deprivation, torture and survival.

There is a lot of death in this story, but there are funny moments too. Pung paints her father as a quirky character with odd character traits, but she does so with fondness and respect. It reads very much as a love letter to him.

And the prose, so astonishing in its clarity of thought and vision and honesty, in its preparedness to discuss difficult topics, is often wry and always original. Her sentences have a dark beauty to them, as these examples show:

His parting gift was a pomegranate from his travels. He gave her an orb of perfect seeded gems encased in incarnadine, but inside her ribcage was rotting fruit.


She didn’t feel too independent. There had been hours of loitering alone, feeling lost, feeling like there were feral kittens fighting in her solar plexus.


The skies were clear then too, and the stars winked like unforgiving blades.

Courageous tale

I really loved this story, for its honesty, its courage, its inspiration and its love. In exploring her own Asian roots and telling her father’s own troubled history, Pung has crafted a powerful story about tenacity, family heritage, intergenerational trauma — and hope.

Her Father’s Daughter was shortlisted for numerous awards in Australia and won the Non-Fiction Prize in the 2011 Western Australian Book Awards.

For another take on this book, please see Karenlee Thompson’s eloquent review, which has been posted on Lisa’s blog.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’ by Loung Ung: an emotionally wrenching memoir about Ung’s traumatic childhood under the Khmer Rouge.

This is my 15th book for #TBR40 and my 8th book for #AWW2019  

Author, Book review, Cambodia, Loung Ung, Mainstream Digital, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’ by Loung Ung

Non-fiction – memoir; Kindle edition; Mainstream Digital; 276 pages; 2016.

Last month I visited Cambodia for a week. It was a wonderfully educational — and emotionally challenging —  experience. (If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen my photographs.)

I saw many things I’m still internally “processing”, not least a visit to the Killing Fields, which was the execution grounds for the ruling Khmer Rouge (1975-79), and Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, a former school that served as a Khmer Rouge torture centre. (I visited Auschwitz in 1998 and this visit was on a par emotion-wise: it really was shocking to see evidence of man’s inhumanity to man — yet again.)

Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father is a moving and disturbing memoir about that turbulent and deadly period in Cambodian history. It was originally published in 2000 and adapted into a movie that was produced and directed by Angelina Jolie in 2017. I have not seen the film.

A childhood under Communist rule

Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power. This makes her the same age as me, but our childhoods couldn’t have been more different.

From 1975 to 1979 – through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour – the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a quarter of the country’s population. This is a story of survival: my own and my family’s. Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians. If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.

Under communist rule markets, schools and universities were abolished, and money, watches, clocks, eight-track players, televisions, cars — in fact anything imported — were banned. Each rural village had a “boss” who acted as the Khmer Rouge’s eyes and ears, but often soldiers would patrol farmland to ensure the work was being carried out correctly. Food, of which there was very little, was strictly controlled.

Loung’s memoir reveals how her carefree childhood, as one of seven children of a high-ranking government official and a middle-class Chinese-born mother, in urban Phnom Penh changed dramatically when Pol Pot came to power in 1975. Because her family worked for the government and her mother was ethnic, they were on Khmer Rouge’s hitlist. The family fled to the countryside, where they reinvented themselves as rural peasants in order to survive.

They got away with it for a short while. Then, one day a soldier appeared on their doorstep, asking Loung’s father to help him fix a broken down vehicle, and he was never seen again. In the weeks and months that followed, Loung’s family was split up: her siblings went to various labour camps; Loung trained as a child soldier; and her mother and younger sister remained in the village trying to get by as best they could.

A courageous struggle for survival

While the story is largely told through the eyes of a young child, naive and fearless, it manages to capture the confusion, cruelty and oppressive nature of a particular time in history.

The horrendous events that Loung and her family went through for more than three years were often barbaric and heart-rending. But somehow, through a series of coincidences and good fortune, they managed to survive the worst of it, but even when the country was liberated by Vietnam in 1979 they still had to flee for their lives and try to re-establish contact with one another. Their tale was far from over. (Apparently this struggle to be reunited is told in a follow-up memoir, After They Killed Our Father: A Refugee from the Killing Fields Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, which I have not read — yet.)

First They Killed My Father is a truly emotional read, all the more so when I compared my childhood, happy and carefree in Australia, with that of the author’s. It’s a powerful and shocking story and one that will stay with me for a long time.

If you don’t know anything (or very little) about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, this memoir is a very good place to start. All the tour guides and officials I met and spoke with in Cambodia always recommended this book to read (I made a habit to ask for reading suggestions; Cambodia does not have much of a written literary tradition) and all were immensely proud of the Angelina Jolie film because it drew attention to their history, which has largely been ignored by the West.

This is my 5th book for #TBR40. I bought it late last year when I was planning my trip to Cambodia and wanted to learn more about the country before I arrived. I actually read it on the day I left Cambodia — an exhausting day involving two internal flights — and it meant all the more to me having visited many of the places mentioned in the book.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cambodia, Fiction, Peter Fröberg Idling, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, TBR40

‘Song for an Approaching Storm’ by Peter Fröberg Idling

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 336 pages; 2015. Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling’s Song for an Approaching Storm is set in Cambodia in the summer of 1955. It tells the story of a complicated love triangle between two political rivals and a beauty queen, but it’s also a powerful evocation of a country at a pivotal point in its history: its first ever democratic elections following independence.

First, some (brief) history to put the story in context. The Kingdom of Cambodia was granted independence (from France) in 1954 following the Geneva Conference, which was designed to settle issues resulting from the Korean War and the First Indochina War. The following year, in early 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated, in favour of his father, so that he could found the Popular Socialist Community Party (commonly known as the Sangkum). This would ensure Cambodia remained a constitutional monarchy (modelled on the UK system) and would rival the left-leaning Democratic Party, which was pro-independence and sought to abolish the monarchy and set up a republic.

The election campaign, which preceded the country’s first democratic election after independence in September 1955, was marred by violence and bloodshed as rival parties fought to be elected to a 91-member National Assembly. The prince’s party won all 91 seats.

Three characters, three narratives

When Song for an Approaching Storm opens there’s just one month remaining in the election campaign. The novel, which spans the 30 or so days leading up to the actual poll, is divided into three parts and each part is told from the point-of-view of a different character.

In part one, Sar is leading a double life as a well-respected school teacher who is officially campaigning for the opposition, but behind the scenes he’s helping an armed Communist network that seeks to take over the Government. He’s engaged to Somaly, a striking young woman who won the Miss Cambodia beauty contest, but their relationship is unravelling and he’s not sure what to do about it. Some 20 years later he will reinvent himself as Pol Pot, the leader of the deadly Khmer Rouge.

In part two, we meet Sary, the ruthless deputy prime minister who is a close ally of the prince and is hell-bent on ensuring that his party stays in power at whatever cost necessary. He’s married with children, but that doesn’t stop him pursuing Somaly who becomes his lover.

And in the final part, we hear from Somaly herself and discover her affection for both men and her deep desire to be independent in a restrictive society that imposes strict rules on a woman’s behaviour and lifestyle.

Love story wrapped up in a riveting political thriller 

As a love story, Song for an Approaching Storm is a fascinating read, but as a political thriller — complete with betrayals, bitter rivalries, house arrests and murder — it is absolutely gripping. Told in rich, languid language, albeit in short, fragmentary sentences (all beautifully translated by Peter Graves), it almost reads like poetry.

Admittedly the first part, told entirely in the second person, is a challenging read and there were a couple of times that I considered abandoning the book because I couldn’t get a handle on it. But by part two, which is told in the more comprehensible third person, the story really came alive for me and I ate up the remainder  in two (longish) sittings because I was anxious to discover what would happen next.

It’s perfectly paced and totally assured. Fröberg Idling is fully in charge of his subject matter. By contrasting the lavish cocktail parties of the elite with the poverty-stricken lives of the peasant underclass, he’s able to paint a richly atmospheric tale based on real people and real events. As a compelling fictionalised account of Pol Pot’s lives and loves, it’s a story I won’t forget in a hurry…

This is my 4th book for #TBR40. I purchased it late last year in preparation for a week-long trip to Cambodia (I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap between 20-27 January 2019) because I always love to read books set in the places I’m about to visit / have visited. It certainly helped my comprehension of this story by knowing a brief history of Cambodia, which I learned during my travels, and of seeing some of the places mentioned in this book.

Author, Book review, Cambodia, Canada, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Madeleine Thien, Publisher, Setting

‘Dogs at the Perimeter’ by Madeleine Thien


Fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, a very moving novel about the Cambodian genocide in which more than a million people were systematically killed as part of Pol Pot’s regime. Her fellow Canadian author Madeleine Thien treads similar territory with her novel Dogs at the Perimeter, which opens as follows:

On November 29, 2005, my friend Dr. Hiroji Matsui walked out of Montreal’s Brain Research Centre at 7:29 in the evening. On the security video, his expression gives nothing away. For a brief moment, the camera captures him in passing: greying hair, neatly combed. […] He exits through a side door, down a flight of metal steps. And then Hiroji walked into the city and disappeared into air.

A novel about disappearances

Hiroji’s disappearance is the first among many in this novel, which is essentially about the ways in which the people of Cambodia disappeared, many of them overnight and without warning, during 1975-79.

His friend and colleague, Janie, who narrates most of this story, lost her entire family in the Cambodian genocide. But that was 30 years ago. Now she lives in Canada, is married, has a son and a successful career as a electrophysiologist studying neuron activity. What we don’t understand when we first begin reading the book is why Janie no longer lives in the marital home and why she only sees her son at the school gate in the mornings.

So this is a book about secrets, too.

And in the disjointed narrative that swings between first person and third person those secrets, both recent and long since buried, come to the surface in tune with Janie’s fragmented recollections.

Past and present collide

When Janie heads to Cambodia to look for Hiroji — because that is where she believes he has gone to look for a long-lost brother who was a Red Cross doctor — her past and present collide.

For the first time in her life, she is able to confront what happened to her as an 11-year-old girl when she and her family were turfed out of their home in Phnom Penh by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and transported to the countryside. She recalls the fear, the starvation — and the smell of death. And she remembers what it was like to escape by boat and to arrive in Canada as a young, traumatised refugee.

Dogs at the Perimeter is far from a cheery read, but there’s something about Thien’s detached prose style that left me feeling strangely unmoved by the story. It’s almost as if you are watching events unfold from behind a window; you can witness the pain and the grief and the horror, but you can never feel truly part of it because you are shielded by a thick pane of glass.

Deftly controlled narrative

Thien’s narrative is deftly controlled. It’s up to the reader to figure out what is going on, and in many ways it mirrors Janie’s descent into pyschological breakdown, offering important scraps of information in random order, so that nothing is truly straightforward.

In fact, there were times I found the storyline a little bewildering, because I wasn’t sure what was real and what was not, nor whether Janie was talking about something in the here and now, or something that had happened in her past. But this is not a complaint. The novel invites slow, careful reading — and sometimes that is more rewarding than turning the pages at a furious pace.

As a book that explores memory, loss and madness — both political and personal — Dogs at the Perimeter is extraordinarily good, incredibly haunting and compassionate.

Author, Book review, Cambodia, Fiction, Hachette Digital, Kim Echlin, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Disappeared’ by Kim Echlin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 256 pages; 2010.

Why do some people live a comfortable life and others live one that is horror-filled? What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep on eating while others starve? If women, children and old people were being murdered a hundred miles from here, would we not run to help? Why do we stop this decision of the heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of a hundred?

During Pol Pot’s brutal regime in Cambodia (1975-1979) more than a million people were killed and buried in mass graves. Others died from disease and starvation. Others still, disappeared never to be seen again.

But how do you tell this truly disturbing story in fictionalised form without banging people over the head, aka A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali style?

Canadian Kim Echlin does it by framing it around a beautiful, all-consuming love story. In The Disappeared — Echlin’s third novel — she tells the tale of Anne Greves, who as a 16-year-old motherless teenager, falls in love with an older man, Serey, a musician turned math tutor in exile from his native Cambodia. Their relationship is frowned upon by Anne’s father, but there is little he can do to prevent the affair, which blossoms in the music clubs of downtown Montreal during the late 1970s.

When the Cambodian borders are re-opened, Serey returns home to look for his family. Anne never hears from him again. Eleven years later, she thinks she sees him on a TV broadcast at a political rally in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She packs her bag and flies to Cambodia to look for him.

It’s circa 1990. The Vietnamese forces that occupied Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge was removed from power have gone, only to be replaced by the UN and other Western aid agencies. The population still largely lives in fear — no one wants to talk about the country’s history of genocide, they merely want to get on with their lives.

Chan [Serey’s childhood neighbour] shook her head. All my children are gone. She looked across the broken road and said, Under Sihanouk, people used to greet each other, How many children have you? Under Lon Noi, people said, Are you well? Under the Khmer Rouge, How much food do you get in your cooperative? Now we say, How many of your family are still alive?

I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to reveal that Anne does find her lover — albeit by a stroke of fate that belies believability — but the course of their love doesn’t run smoothly: Serey disappears once again. It’s her second, more frantic search, that gives the latter half of this strangely hypnotic novel a rather thrilling edge. Not only does Anne put herself in ludicrously dangerous situations — her dogged determination to find Serey borders on stupidity and obsession — but there’s a very real fear that what she is looking for is not a person, but a body.

Spanning 30 years, it is written in the second person as Anne looks back on her life with Serey. It is rather hard-hitting in places, but it is also strangely moving. And despite Anne’s flaws, her inability to ask Serey questions about his lifestyle, her naive, Westernised view of the world, it’s hard not to admire her quest for the truth when everyone else wants to bury their head in the sand.

As well as being a terrifically fast-gripping story, The Disappeared is the type of novel that uses language carefully. Echlin’s prose style is poetic, but she describes things — events, people, places, conversations — in an elegant but plain style. And it never feels like she is cramming journalistic information into her fictionalised account — it feels authentic and seamless — which only makes it feel more real and “truthful”.

For another take on this novel, I would recommend you read KevinfromCanada’s review, which is where I first heard about this book, while The Mookse and the Gripes’ review only reinforced my desire to get my hands on a copy. I thank both of them for bringing this moving and memorable novel to my attention.