Monday, May 5, 2014

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

After reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the non-fiction book about the garbage collectors of Mumbai, I figured this book, set in the dump of Penom Penh, would be merely a fictionalized version.  The basic plot line could also have been repetitive:  horrendous setting, a heroic character who beats the odds, saccharin-sweet ending.  You guessed it...I was so very wrong.  The story does take place in an ugly, smelly, dangerous garbage dump, where the 'pickers' can be mowed over by the bulldozers or burned to death by the methane gas fire.  Heroic characters do exist, but I was quite surprised by them.  The viciously mean rent collector seemed to be the quintessential villain, until...she wasn't.  You will meet a delightful young family, whose young father picks garbage for a living, whose wife wants so much more than the dump, and whose baby son fights constant illness.  Wright does a masterful job of not painting anyone as all bad, or all good, but creates complex characters who do battle with their environment, as well as with their own desires.  We see some of the ancient traditions of Cambodia in their rather medieval medical practices, as well as the beautiful tradition of literature and art.  This is a truly engrossing, beautiful, and well-told story that contains unexpected twists; it was an absolute delight, and should not be missed.  (And if you're a lover of literature, or perchance a teacher of the power of books, you will be highlighting a lot of lines!)