The Rent Collector by Camron Wright
Poverty, squalor and oppression cannot keep people from finding meaning and even happiness in the solace of the written word in this heartfelt story of Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge purges. It is, in the end, a hopeful and inspiring book.
This is a narrative of poverty and suffering redeemed by literature. Most of us will never know the depths of despair that dominate the lives of this Cambodian family who live and work on the dump of mid-sized city situated on a river. In spite of their humble circumstances they find joy and even contentment in being able to live from day to day, but life is hard and fragile. Each day the husband, Ki Lim, goes out to scavenge recyclable trash as the city trucks come in to discharge their loads. Competition can be fierce and the threat of being robbed of even these crumbs is always present. Still, with hard work, indomitable spirit and the help of neighbors and family, Sang Ly, the wife and Nisay, their infant son manage to survive using their wits and incredible ingenuity to keep themselves clean and fed, if not well, then adequately to sustain continued existence
Each month, a woman with a sour disposition and a paucity of compassion collects the rent on their cardboard and sheet metal shack. She is unforgiving and unwilling to extend terms when money is scarce or nonexistent, making life even more difficult. One day when Ki Lim brings home a book, which neither he nor Sang Ly can read, the rent collector sees it on the floor of the hovel and is transformed. Tears fill her eyes and she seems oblivious to everyone around her. When aroused from her reverie, she asks to take the book in exchange for the month’s rent. Amazed but overjoyed at this eventuality, the couple happily agree. This begins a relationship between the old woman and Sang Ly, in which we come to learn that she was once a professor of literature at a university before the ascendence of the Khmer Rouge, who murdered all intellectuals, professionals and anyone with education. How she escaped death becomes clear in time, but meanwhile she offers to teach Sang Ly to read. What ensues is a deepening feeling between the women and the birth of the idea of the meaning of the written word in the bleak life of the dump.
There is a sweetness to this book that emerges in the first pages, in spite of the horrific conditions in which the protagonists live. That tone persists and is enhanced by the growing sense of hope brought about by the examination of reading and books. In the end it is the written word that redeems and elevates both the characters and the reader of the book in a bittersweet but satisfying way. It may not be edgy or thrill- driven, but it is a wonderful read and I can recommend to any lover of literature.