TEXT review

Never mind the earworm, read this book

review by Victoria Reeve


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Documents:TEXT REVIEWS:2014 APRIL ISSUE GENERAL:BOOK COVER IMAGES:Holiday-in-Cambodia.jpg
Laura Jean McKay
Holiday in Cambodia
Black Inc, Collingwood 2013
ISBN 9781863956062
Pb 224pp AUD24.99

Holiday in Cambodia
by Laura Jean McKay presents a series of short stories themed around the Dead Kennedys’ song of the same name. Western arrogance, ignorance and wealth provide narrative material in this beautiful collection. The stories nonetheless remain stories of Cambodia and Cambodians. McKay skilfully represents and critiques various attitudes of privilege, but her portrayals are, for the most part, sympathetic and demonstrate an empathetic engagement with the subjectivities of Westerners and Cambodians alike. With one exception (the second story in this collection), she refuses to mock the narrow-minded Western viewpoint and treats her characters with compassion. This critical perspective is even applied to the Westerner who reads this collection. As consumers of Cambodia in its literary iteration, we are also prone to the foibles of Western pretension. The opening story, ‘Route Four’, effectively challenges the presumptions of the reader. It begins by conventionally privileging Western figures and implying their greater significance as protagonists. Seemingly about the journey of four tourists, who will be captured by Khmer Rouge during a train hold-up, the denouement reveals this story to be really about the fate of the small Cambodian boy who follows them. The self-assurance, wealth and novelty of the four tourists places them central to any anticipated action and the boy incidental to that activity. But it is the very incidental nature of the story’s shocking conclusion that commands the reader’s attention and forces a retrospective view of the narrative and its establishment of the boy’s significance throughout.

This sets the reader on track to understanding the collection and its author’s love and compassion for Cambodia. Challenging the assumptions of significance and the hierarchies of perspective that underlie the Western narrative tradition, McKay incorporates Cambodian experience of tourism in what are almost marginal expressions of pathos. When she writes, ‘It was as though someone had packed the sky into a box over Phnom Penh’ (25), she captures the sense of disenfranchisement that indigence provokes. The phrase, at once beautiful and highly successful as a description of monsoonal weather, carries the suggestion of ownership and privilege associated with someone who packs a bag or a box. A touristic eye thus invades a narrative that otherwise makes the traveller and the tourist incidental (the story, ‘Holiday, I Love You’ focuses instead on the lives of two factory workers). The sentence, appearing early in the story, bears an ironical relationship to the action, which recounts the failed institution of a holiday for the factory workers.

McKay’s skill as a writer is apparent throughout Holiday in Cambodia, but it is in the last story of the collection that I came to appreciate her ability to sustain and obscure the actual revelation of important detail in her narratives. Although I found the beginning a little clunky in terms of the narratorial voice (it took some time for the speaker’s tone to settle), ‘The Deep Ambition of Rossi’ builds artfully to its conclusion with a matter-of-fact ease. It also introduces, or re-introduces, insights about the Western perspective of Cambodians. ‘The Deep Ambition of Rossi’ emphasises the limitations of the colonial perspective, but no one is exempt from appearing ignorant when faced with the complexities of tourism and differences between the host and visiting culture. Even the aid-workers who pride themselves on their cultural sensitivity reveal their awkwardness. The hyper-vigilance of cultural sensitivity demonstrated by one such individual (the narrator of ‘Coming Up’) actually hampers her ability to connect with local people. By contrast, her visiting mother befriends a grieving family despite her brashness and apparent insensitivity. The story’s trajectory seems to suggest that respecting another culture does not require the suppression of one’s own culture; rather, respect can be found in attempts to relate to another in personal terms, even when such attempts risk making one appear culturally ignorant.

I enjoyed Holiday in Cambodia – even if it set up an earworm that persisted for a week in the form of the Dead Kennedys’ song – and although the second story’s conventional form was not suited to the idea that it carried. It is an insightful book, written with the kind of quiet charm I find in Chekhov’s short stories, and gentle with eloquence. The restraint of its author’s writing, which offered some beautiful descriptions at times (and the occasional enigmatic phrase, demanding deeper reflection), allowed the stories – rather than the writing – to be central to the reading experience. This is important because, once a story has wormed into your ear, it invites repeated reflection and appreciation. The well-written stories in this collection provide a lasting pleasure, rewarding the reader with their gentle nudging insights and depiction of Cambodia.


Victoria Reeve teaches English Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo