I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Jean McKay (LJM) at a literary event in Wagga Wagga on my recent trip to the Riverina and attending a workshop she ran for writers. She is vivacious and intense. The same may be said of her writing.
As the title suggests, these 17 short stories are set in Cambodia, but they span decades – the earliest seem to be in the 1950s and the most recent are in the present – and include 1969 (Vietnam War) and 1994 (post-Pol Pot). The title also suggests something of the First World heading off to the economic fringes of the planet for a ‘break’.
The desire for authenticity of experience in a foreign culture is a motif in the stories. It leads some characters to ruin, others to exploitative banality, but no-one to the authenticity they might have been expecting. The satirising of the emptiness of this search as conducted through the tourist sights is frequently savage. I didn’t laugh much; there was quite a deal of hanging and shaking the head at what I was seeing in the mirror of this work.
I believe it is a work rather than a collection of works. The multitude of perspectives, with the manifold experiences of Cambodia through the last sixty years, create a portrait of the country. LJM has used ‘holidaying’ as her brush. I am reminded of the effect of the gospels – four perspectives that together create a far more rounded portrait than any single perspective gives.
Holiday is riveting. It is gritty writing, unconventional, replete with a wide diversity of characters and scenarios with – dare I say it – an abiding authenticity. The climate oozes from the writing. (I am recently returned from Timor Leste; as I read, I relived the heat, sweat and heavy air.) War’s legacy is everywhere and usually evoked through small details, quietly, beyond the tourist’s senses. The images of people and places are vivid and sometimes fleeting.
I don’t always ‘get’ the endings. Maybe my expectation that there will be something to get is the issue? In that respect, some remind me of Coleridge’s fragments, especially ‘Kubla Khan’. Not bad company, but I’m conservative, I know.
If you don’t mind thinking about what you read, if you relish the prospect of seeing the familiar reflected in a different light, if you value honesty and technical excellence, Holiday in Cambodia is worth picking up. More than ever now, I want to visit Cambodia. Don’t you just love a paradox!