Books on GIF #89 — 'The Rent Collector' by Camron Wright

Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's book is 'The Rent Collector' by Camron Wright.
I hope you guys are enjoying the long weekend! I don’t want to take up too much of your time today, but before I get into this week’s review, I want to tell you some news. I’ve moved Books on GIF off of TinyLetter and onto this new thing called Substack. Ever since we learned that TinyLetter was going to shut down, I’ve been looking for a new platform to carry this little newsletter forward. TinyLetter was great when I started out, but it didn’t have the analytics or sharing functionality I wanted, and I felt I was always struggling against it to grow readership. Recently, I saw some newsletters I subscribe to, including Two Bossy Dames and The Collected AHP, had moved to Substack. After kicking the tires and figuring out how to import GIFs, I believe this platform puts me in a better position to grow. So I’m moving on, like: ‘The Rent Collector’ focuses on a Cambodian family that lives in a garbage dump in Phnom Penh called Stung Meanchey. Protagonist Sang Ly lives there in a shack with her husband and infant son, making a living by picking through trash for things to sell. They are harangued often by the rent collector, Sopeap Sin, and in this particular month, they are short on money. One night, Sang Ly’s husband brings home a children’s book he fished out of the garbage. Neither of them can read, so they show the pictures to their child. When Sopeap Sin arrives shortly thereafter, she is overcome by emotion at the sight of the book. Sang Ly figures out that she is literate, and convinces the nefarious rent collector to teach her to read. Turns out Sopeap Sin was once a literature professor before the Khmer Rouge came to power and has been collecting rent at the dump for years to hide from the guilt she feels over events from her past. In what I thought was the best part of the book, we learn that Sopeap Sin escaped being massacred by the Khmer Rouge because militant gunman sent to her house killed her husband and then mistakenly murdered their housekeeper in her place. She took on the housekeeper’s name to survive. The story becomes a tale of redemption for Sopeap Sin, as well as a celebration of literacy and the power of literature. I’m all for that: Even so, I thought this book had problems. First, ‘The Rent Collector’ never delivers on its promise that literature can empower lives and help people overcome hardship. Sang Ly’s newfound literacy does little to improve her life, or to get her and her family out of the dump. We are expected to believe that she is better off simply for being able to read Hans Christian Andersen. Second, I didn’t buy the timeline. Sang Ly goes from zero to fluent literacy in mere weeks, and over that time she and Sopeap Sin go from antagonists to as close as family. Third, the tone is all wrong. Sang Ly’s narration, as one Goodreads reviewer put it, sounds more like a suburban soccer mom than a woman who literally has to claw and scrape her life from other people’s trash. Fourth, Wright kept using the verb ‘scoot,’ as in ‘to scoot over,’ and it felt weird and out of place. Fifth, its grasp of Cambodia and its history seems thin. I’m no historian, but this story feels like Camron Wright read maybe an article or two about the Khmer Rouge before writing this book. All this took me out of the story, and I was like:

After my last review, longtime BoG collaborator Leslie suggested I include excerpts of the books I review to give a sense of the writing. That’s a great idea, and I think the easiest thing might be to include how the book opens. And if there were a truly memorable phrase, I’d include that, too. What do you guys think? Here goes:

How it begins:

I once believed that heroes existed only in old men’s fables, that evil in the world had triumphed over good, and that love—a true, unselfish, and abiding love—could only be found in a little girl’s imagination. I was certain the gods were deaf, that Buddha was forgotten, and that I would never again see the natural beauty of my home province.

It was a time when I learned about shape-shifters, shadows, and redemption; when I finally grasped the meaning of a Chinese proverb whose venerable words still rattle about in my head: The most difficult battles in life are those we fight within.

It was also the year that I came to truly know the Rent Collector.

So, I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I really like and agree with its message about the importance of literacy. I also like that it is set in Southeast Asia, and attempts to tell a story involving that region’s history and culture. When I visited Bangkok last year, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find books in English set in Southeast Asia, or even by Southeast Asian writers. I came to this book wanting to like it, but flaws in the writing were too distracting.

My rating: 
'The Rent Collector' by Camron Wright was published in 2013 by Shadow Mountain Publishing. 288 pages.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #88 featured 'Basic Black With Pearls' by Helen Weinzweig.

What's next: In two weeks you'll get a review of 'No One Tells You This' by Glynnis MacNicol. Also in the queue are 'Masks' by Fumiko Enchi, 'The Vorrh' by B. Catling and ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué. All of these were recommended by BoG readers!

Send your recommendations: If you've got a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want me to review, shoot me an email anytime.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,

MPV