I committed myself to the Miles challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books. Despite moving interstate, and then overseas and starting a new job in a new country, I was determined to meet my commitment, and I’m very happy that I succeeded. Not only did I read all 6 books, I wrote reviews for them as well. Participating in the AWW Challenge, I found myself searching for new books to read and in the process discovered some brilliant women authors whose work I had never read before, and also was able to read new works by authors who I already knew and admired. I encountered a host of vibrant characters: there’s Meggie Tulloch, the courageous fish gutting girl, with the flaming red hair, in Amanda Curtin’s Elemental; the aging Ruth who hears a tiger huffing and panting her living room, in Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest; Harry the Victorian dairy farmer, who has an affinity for bird watching, in Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds; the collection of short stories that convey the cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia, and highlights attitudes to life, relationships, death, superstitions and sex, in Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia; orphans Anna and Stephen Quayle and their interaction with middle class North Shore socialites, the Howard family, in post-war Sydney, in Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles; and young Lily, an outsider, who is mesmerised by the Trentham family and the artistic community they create in their home, in Emily Bitto’s The Strays. These characters and their experiences have travelled with me over this past year and reading their stories was a richly rewarding experience, one that I intend to repeat next year.
I was helping a friend edit her short story, a great travel piece about a trek along the Inca Trail, when she mentioned that a colleague had commented that the story didn’t have enough insight into the emotional background of the characters. I’ve noticed recently that some readers want the characters’ emotions laid out for them, to have the characters presented akin to a reality TV show, where every tedious inch is laid bare and nothing is left to the imagination. The problem is that a short story doesn’t have the time or space to delve into these areas the way a novel does. Also, a well written story doesn’t need the characters’ emotions conveyed in intimate, expanded detail. A good writer can convey intense situations through means other than describing the characters’ emotions. As a reader, I want to be guided, given some insights, but I want my imagination to kick in, to fill the spaces with a richness and vividness that is all my own. That’s the beauty of reading.
What does that have to do with Holiday in Cambodia? you ask. Well, quite simply that this book of short stories does a sensational job of withholding, of giving just enough insight, character development and storyline to get you hooked, so hooked in fact that you want more, you want the stories to go on, only they don’t. They stop. Often quite abruptly. Which, for me, only added to their appeal. I liked that there wasn’t a focus on providing an excess of detail and character emotions, that there was a tension created by the holding back, which allowed me to engage more fully with the stories being narrated.
Holiday in Cambodia is a collection of 17 short stories that portray the cultural differences between Australia and Cambodia, and highlights attitudes to life, relationships, death, superstitions and sex. The stories are cleverly crafted so as to be often fragmented, leaving the reader with the impression of having entered into a conversation halfway through, only to have it end abruptly without a resolution. McKay’s talent is evident in her ability to write intense, brief stories that are precise, yet containing just enough details to bring the stories to life. It would be a mistake to assume that the brevity of the length, or the sudden endings mean that the stories lack weight. Holiday in Cambodia is filled with weighty, powerful stories, driven by well-developed, real characters. Some so real that they’ll make you cringe, others will make you want to comfort the central character. What is certain is that these stories will make you feel a gamut of emotions. It’s hard to believe that such short stories can produce such intense reactions. The Australian characters, in the form of expats, aid workers and tourists, are immediately recognisable by the way that they behave, sometimes badly – from the expat men who frequent brothels to the mother who inserts herself into a grieving family to satisfy her sense of morbid curiosity about death. The stories push deeper beyond the stereotypes to explore Cambodian culture, superstitions and the tragedy and loss experienced by a country ravaged by war and the Khmer Rouge, and the ongoing loss of life and limb due to unexploded ordinances that lie hidden in the soil.
In the rainy season, mines slide under the mud. Landmines are travellers. They shift like worms and you have to find them again. Old ones rise to the surface and ones marked as found sink and disappear. You could end up with one next to your house, they warned, where your children play. (A Thousand Cobs of Corn)
The question of why we travel, and the desire to view the plight of others as a form tourism is raised in Route Four. ‘I’m going to India after this,’ says the rich man and the lady laughs. ‘You have to go. It’s dire.’ Three backpackers from western countries insist on catching the train to Kampot, and an orphan boy accompanies them, hoping to make some money from the rich foreigners. The tale starts slowly, keeping pace with the rhythmic shunting of the train, but takes a dramatic turn that has brutal results. This story, among others, still haunts me, the imagery was vivid, and the ending caught me off guard.
The impact of the stories in Holiday in Cambodia is strong yet poignant, and they will stay with you after you have finished the book. Route Four, the first story in the collection, is a great leading piece, and from there I found myself consumed and fascinated by the characters, by their circumstances, and the cultural insights and perspectives that I had gained access to.
Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay (Black Inc. 2013)
Holiday in Cambodia was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award 2014.