Review: The Cambodian Book of the Dead by Tom Vater (3.5/5)

Really Liked It. Wanted To Absolutely Love It.

I am equally ignorant of and intrigued by things Cambodian. I imagine it to be a perfect setting for storytelling: full of ghosts, mystery and profound sadness.

Reading TCBOTD took me back to the first time I watched the movie adaptation of Christopher Koch’s The Year Of Living Dangerously. Like Koch’s Indonesia, Vater’s Cambodia seems to have so much beauty, so much history, so much pain and so many spirits that I found myself not quite being able to get the measure of it. Understanding always seemed to hidden behind a gauzy veil, just beyond my grasp.

There is a lot of rich description and historical exposition. Some may find it heavy, but I liked it. It took me by the hand and led me through the narrative — “come, hurry, the answer is this way” — but I never seemed to get there. And perhaps that is the way it should be.

Maybe there is more honesty in that.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead

The Cambodian Book of the Dead from Exhibit A Books

Assasins In Pajamas

There is something special about an all-female teen hit-squad dressed in black pajamas.

TCBOTD boasts an original and interesting parade of characters featuring some nasty villains. I was particularly fascinated by Kaley (who may or may not be a cursed spirit) and Vladimir (a crazy Russian hiding out in abandoned casino), neither of whom I ever really figured out.

While I never managed to cheer for Maier (the protagonist detective), I found myself wanting him to succeed, if only so that I could find out what the hell was going on. Normally, this might be cause to put a book down, but something kept tugging at me, beckoning me to read on.

The torture and interrogation scenes presented the biggest problems for me, not because I am squeamish about such things. They were somewhat absurd (capture, drug, torture, interrogate, escape, repeat) and the writing of the hallucinations had me jumping out of the story to figure out what was going on.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead is an enigmatic, unsettling thriller that never lets you get your balance. And for some, that may be difficult.

One comment

  1. […] “The Cambodian Book of the Dead is an enigmatic, unsettling thriller that never lets you get your balance.” – Cheffo Jeffo […]

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