Reviews / February 2010 (Issue 10)

Writing Down the Bones: A Review of Kim Echlin's The Disappeared

by Phoebe Tsang


Kim Echlin, The Disappeared, Hamish Hamilton, 2009. 235 pgs.

Kim Echlin is breaking news. It's September 22nd 2009, and the Canadian novelist has just arrived at one of Toronto's numerous public libraries. She's here to read from her latest novel, The Disappeared, which was long-listed the day before for the Giller Prize.

The Disappeared is set in Montreal and Cambodia during the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79. During those years, access and communications were cut between Cambodia and the rest of the world. In 2009, the UN-backed war crimes court in Cambodia has begun its trials of Khmer Rouge suspects. News channels offer frequent updates on atrocities hidden for decades. We are beginning to hear the lost voices of those who disappeared.

Later in tonight's presentation, Echlin will speak of the research process behind writing The Disappeared. She studied the transcripts of truth and reconciliation commissions from Argentina, Canada and South Africa. The histories and human rights issues of these states differ as widely as the mandates and roles of each commission. But in all cases, the authentic voice of eyewitness-survivor accounts haunted Echlin with their simplicity and lack of embellishment. The experience allowed her to find the voice with which to tell the story of The Disappeared.

Yet to begin her reading, Echlin whisks us back two centuries, away from current affairs. With a fluid delivery befitting her skill as a storyteller, and her love of myth—her doctoral thesis was on Ojibway storytelling—she recounts the story of The Singing Bone, a Grimm Brothers' fairytale. To Echlin, this story embodies concepts central to The Disappeared: finding and giving voice to those denied this right during their lifetimes; bearing witness to our lives through the act of storytelling, from the personal to the political.


At its heart, The Disappeared is a love story between the protagonist Anne Greves, a Montrealer, and Serey, a Cambodian exile, one of millions whose lives have been disrupted by civil unrest. Greves' life is ruled by her passionate nature, and in the world of Anne and Serey, love is a powerful force that can stand up, hold its own, and be heard. Though love proves neither infallible nor indestructible, loss and failure do not stop Anne from listening to her heart. As Echlin herself says, "What is important is that the story is told."

Their relationship challenges boundaries of race, culture, place, time and generation. Anne's passion propels her to bridge differences, while surrendering to the resonant similarities that unite all human beings. Responding to her lover, Anne argues that she may not have experienced the horrors of Phnom Penh, but she has known "criminal terror" firsthand in Montreal, during the October Crisis of 1970. "Why would here be different?" she asks.

Echlin's narrative weaves a wide web between distant cultures, and fiercely individual characters whose desires are often at odds. Her pared-down language highlights breathtaking leaps of imagination, in scenes where disparate or antagonistic forces are brought into unexpected relationship.

Anne visits Tuol Sleng Museum with Serey, and experiences the shock of violent atrocities commemorated by art and artifacts: "I was numbed by this vision of a human being. I stood beside you and you were so far away that I could not touch you. In Tuol Sleng a person can be torturer or tortured … " Later, Anne asks: "What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep eating while others starve?"

During the novel's seven-year gestation period, Echlin drew from a wide array of sources: a vendor in a Cambodian street-market, a motorcycle tour company she found online, the poetry of ancient cultures. She cites the Song of Solomon and the songs of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, saying: "the voice of this love poetry is essential and speaks directly to the beloved."

Echlin herself does not write poetry, stating with disarming humility, "I admire poets." But the lyricism of her prose dispels traditional distinctions between the genres. The Disappeared is constructed in 78 chapters. Some are simply a brief paragraph, communicating with the compressed transcendence of prose poems —dreamlike meditations set flickering on a black river, like the prayer candles Serey and Anne send sailing to the moon for Sampeas Preah Khe, during Cambodia's annual Water and Moon Festival.


During the Q&A following Echlin's reading, many audience members return to the topic of truth commissions. They ask what outcome might be expected from a commission's reports. They question whether the victims of war crimes can find retribution in such a process, or if truth commissions indirectly provided absolution for perpetrators. They want to know Echlin's personal position on political issues.

The relationship between the findings of a truth commission, and criminal prosecution, is an acknowledged problem. Truth commissions have been criticized for creating impunity for serious crimes. Echlin responds by simply stating the value in the fact that the official proceedings are all written down. Reiterating her belief in the power of bearing witness through the act of telling, she says: "There is a record, versus disappearing, and that seems to be important to people."

The Disappeared does not make direct mention of The Singing Bone. But within its opening paragraphs we read: "Bones work their way to the surface." With eight syllables, Echlin has distilled this fairytale's narrative into a universal metaphor, for the histories that continue to live in our midst.

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