I was initially interested in reading The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright, because the story takes place in Cambodia. One of my daughters-in-law is Cambodian (born there and moved to the United States with her mother, father, and baby brother when she was a toddler during the latter days of the horrible-beyond-belief Khmer Rouge). I shamefully know very little about this dark time in world history.
The Rent Collector takes place in contemporary times, but as you would imagine, the story of the Khmer Rouge plays an important role. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I have been unable to make myself watch the movie The Killing Fields because it would break my heart. I was fearful The Rent Collector would do the same. What I found, instead, was a beautiful and poignant story about an unforgettable family who, despite what would seem to us to be nearly unbearable living conditions, finds joy in almost everything.
Sang Ly lives with her husband Ki Lim and their baby boy, Nisay in Stung Meanchey, Cambodia’s largest municipal waste dump. Not only is this their home (along with a surprisingly large community of people), but they make their living from “picking,” that is, going through the dump site daily to find things to sell. While they are totally aware of the horror of their living conditions, they are surprisingly happy. Sang Ly and her husband are in love, and Nisay is the most important person in their life together. In fact, much of the book centers on the two trying to find a cure for Nisay’s constant diarrhea and inability to eat.
As the story begins, it seems as though the book’s villain is going to be the rent collector – a woman called Sopeap Sin. Her job is to collect the monthly rent from the people living in Stung Meanchey, and she initially seems mean, cold-hearted, and vindictive. Through a set of circumstances, Sang Ly learns that Sopeap Sin was a teacher in her earlier life and she begs Sopeap Sin to teach her to read. Sopeap Sin reluctantly agrees, and a remarkable friendship is formed.
The ability to read changes Sang Ly’s life in many ways, and witnessing those changes is absolute joy for the reader. Things don’t go smoothly much of the time, but Sang Ly’s and Ki Lim’s optimistic attitude and refusal to give up makes for indescribably satisfying reading. The Rent Collector is a beautiful story, plain and simple, and Camron Wright is an amazing writer. This is a book I will long remember, and Sang Ly, Ki Lim, and Sopeap Sin are characters I will not soon forget.
By the way, though The Rent Collector is a novel, it is based on a true story, and the book actually shows pictures of the real-life Sang Ly and Ki Lim and their most disturbing home.
I strongly, strongly urge book clubs to consider this novel for discussion.