By Carolyn Williams
Only an elegant novel can combine an overwhelming love and a horrifying genocide without becoming unbelievable, but Kim Echlin’s “The Disappeared” makes it look easy.
Anne Greves is a 16-year-old student living in 1979 Montreal when she meets Serey. Her mother deceased, she lives with her father, an engineer of prosthetic limbs, but they operate at a distance. This loneliness prompts Anne to begin a habit of frequenting nightclubs, escaping via the blues music she loves.
There she encounters Serey, a Cambodian musician five years her senior. The two date and form a bond that will come to defy societal norms and become the cornerstone of Anne’s life. Despite her father’s disapproval, Anne dates Serey, boldly living with him on weekends, and hanging around his band, whose name is aptly lifted from Sartre’s famous play “No Exit.”
Serey is himself trapped. He was already studying at a university in the safety of Canada when the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror began in Cambodia. Left with only a yellowing photo of his family and his father’s last telegram warning him not to come home, Serey is wracked by worry and survivor’s guilt. He falls in love with Anne as an exile and inevitably has to leave her when the Cambodian borders open.
But it is too late for Anne to turn back. She lives a life of apparent normalcy. She attends university, later becoming a professor of languages herself, but in truth she is hollowed out. She feels Serey’s absence, the danger of life in so unstable a country as post-genocidal Cambodia and her many unreturned letters and phone calls acutely. As a way of bringing herself closer to him, Anne studies the Khmer language, perfecting it. She rents his old apartment, unintentionally wallowing in memories of their past. Eleven years have passed when, watching the news, she believes she finally sees Serey, standing in the crowd at a memorial service. Without hesitation, she buys her plane ticket.
Upon her arrival in Phnom Penh, Anne gruelingly spends her nights searching nightclub after nightclub, until, at last, she and Serey are reunited. Unfortunately, their love cannot outweigh the residue of horror left to the recovering country. Anne’s narration of her time in Cambodia contains equal parts horror and history. Despite the atrocities, she maintains her unflinching love for Serey and manages to convey to he audience the beauty of the people, the culture, struggling to repair the irreversible damage done.
Anne and Serey fall into the familiar rhythm of quotidian existence, but something is off. After the stillborn birth of their daughter, Anne begins to suspect Serey of becoming detached. And when he disappears, Anne would do anything to get him back.
Echlin evokes something of Marguerite Duras’s style in “The Disappeared,” besides the similarity of a romantic relationship between a Western girl and an older Asian lover. Anne narrates from a future without Serey, turning the story into an extended love letter, addressing him throughout as “you,” pouring her grief and her longing for him into their story, her lasting tribute to their love. The eloquence of Echlin’s writing and the real, raw feelings of her narrator makes “The Disappeared” a truly moving read.