Book review: Holiday in Cambodia
I’ve just come up for air.
Holiday in Cambodia is a collection of short stories, all set in Cambodia, and all giving different insights into the place that it is. It is described by the publisher as “explor[ing] the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet,” and that is exactly how I felt when reading it. There are brief intersections between characters from different stories, but for the most part, each one stands alone as a fully-realised piece.
McKay’s ability to shift voice to create distinct stories is magic. I often struggle with short story collections because, after six or seven stories, they can begin to blend into one jumbled narrative. Holiday in Cambodia is not like that at all; it varies from straight fiction to magic realism to satire.
The writing itself is sparse, concise and unlaboured, with the kind of deft trickery that can only be executed by the very skilled writer. McKay gives small glimpses of life in Cambodia from many angles, without focusing or glamourising any one aspect. Her empathy for this country, and the people who live there, is obvious in each piece. Her tourist characters are expertly executed, offering a caricatured truth and people we must all recognise — the brash, the culturally insensitive, the predatory, the lonely.
Never once did I feel that the scope of the stories — war, famine, torture, sex slavery — bogged down her real and complete characters. The themes of these stories happened because of them, rather than the characters being a vessel for commentary on the themes.
Of all of the pieces, I most enjoyed A Thousand Cobs of Corn. I chewed on it like a tiny biscuit. Every word is remarkable and should be savoured.
I could not put this sucker down.