Thumbs up: The Rent Collector is a father’s novel inspired by his son’s documentary, River of Victory. Not only is the story based on the experiences of real-life family, even many of the names appear unchanged. If you choose the page, you’ll be rewarded at book’s end with a bonus section of photos that speak further volumes.
Thumbs stuck in the mud: If you go audible, get ready to practice your eyeball-rolling – Diane Dabczyniski narrates with supposed-to-sound-Asian accents. The thoughtless implication is that the characters are unable to fluently speak their own language! Ironically, she stumbles through the names of people and places in the one language that required accuracy, Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. The result is inexcusable – author Camron Wright even provides a “Pronunciation Guide” on his highly detailed website. Again, audible producers: accuracy can be but a speedy Google search away!
Welcome to Stung Meanchey, Cambodia’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Sang Ly, her husband Ki Lim, and their baby Nisay, live in a hovel in the dump, surviving day-to-day from what they can salvage and sell. They regularly struggle to pay the bitter, alcoholic Sopeap Sin, the dump’s titular rent collector. They are short again this month, their rent money spent on treatments for the chronically sickly Nisay.
In the midst of her latest ranting demands, Sopeap notices a precious book on the hovel’s floor that Ki Lim recently rescued. The sight of the children’s story causes the most unexpected reaction from Sopeap, as she flees in shattered tears. Sang Ly realizes that Sopeap can read, and she strikes a deal with the angry old woman to teach her the same. Sang Ly is sure of one thing: literacy is the path out of poverty, and the only lasting way to save her young son.
That Wright had detailed access to his son’s documentary gives his novel an overall sense of authenticity, although the narrative is not without the occasional missteps that might remind the reader that Wright is not a young Cambodian mother trapped in a city of garbage: would a person of the dumps know about fanciest restaurants in France; would she ever think in terms of parenting awards? Inconsistencies aside, The Rent Collector is a sprawling story populated with tragic characters (a young girl whose brother is determined to sell her into prostitution), horrific history (the inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge), and grave uncertainty (the dumps are only growing). While the novel doesn’t quite rival the beloved literature that Sopeap reverently introduces to the hungry Sang Ly, Wright’s unembellished, straight-forward prose is a story well-told … a story of grace for a life redeemed, of gratitude for a few lives saved, and ultimately of unwavering hope for a better future.