Read James Tierney’s lovely review of Holiday in Cambodia  in The Australian.

Conversations tinged with memories of Cambodia’s catastrophic past


IF the long drink of a novel is a bottle of wine, a short­story collection is a line of shot glasses. Brimmed with a different liquor, each nip encourages the reader to the next but risks masking the flavour of the last.

As perhaps a response to the imperative of the turning page, recent collections such as Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge or Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Triburbia test the line with stories that both stand alone and function as a fragment in a single resonate read.

In her debut collection, Holiday in Cambodia, Melbourne writer Laura Jean McKay plays this trick in a subtly encompassing way. All set in the titular country, these unostentatiously wrought stories look at the residual effects on their characters of the low, persistent fallout of catastrophe.

Holiday in Cambodia’s 17 tales swing
from the perspectives of Cambodians to
those of outsiders (mostly Australians) in
almost equal measure. The back and forth in this cannily sequenced collection creates an impression of dialogue, reminding us that one of the functions of fiction is to be an empathetic part of the present conversation about the past.

The buzzing necessity of money informs more than one of these interchanges. In Taxi, Adam’s naive mistake turns to sulky offence once Sopea, the sex worker he’s taken to a hotel, asks to be paid.

Kim, a roadside bookseller in Tell Me Where to Run, is marooned from school by the changing focus of international charity and then by more than one type of theft.

Exploitations past and present often indirectly bookend these stories.

From the self­satisfied lassitude of the French Indochine period, to the suck towards disaster of the neighbouring Vietnam War, to globalisation’s vanguards of clothing factories and the tourist trade, McKay has a keen eye for the personal effect of large events:

Out in the night the water coming into the country met the great force of the water going out.

McKay looks sideways at Cambodia’s often sorry history. Only in one story, Congratulations on Your Happy Day, is the Khmer Rouge genocide considered directly.

Ravi, once a wedding singer, is taken from the mud of a collective farm to perform at a forced mass wedding (in which she is also one of the brides).

When she sings, “You will always stick together, like grass seeds made wet by the rain”, it’s a reminder that grace is found only after survival.

Otherwise, the consequences of that dark time eddy out. All the Gold in Phnom Penh uses the folklore that family savings were secreted away in house walls before the Khmer Rouge emptied the capital to point out the persistence of fear.

In A Thousand Cobs of Corn landmines are described as shifting about “like worms” in the muddy fields during the rainy season.

It’s a mark of McKay’s considerable skill that the detritus of large events doesn’t ever threaten to overwhelm her vivid, well­realised characters ­ from the clueless tourists travelling on a train line under threat from the Khmer Rouge, to a hotel maid singing, with hesitant joy, Hey Jude in Khmer with rolled rs and flattened vowels, to the numb recognition of a wife’s waning interest in her marriage.

The range of perspectives offered across these stories works like word of mouth, building a picture of a country on trust.

Only in Vampires from Cambodia, Susan from Australia are the parallels of addiction too obviously drawn.

There’s a quietness to McKay’s prose that recalls Anne Carson’s advice that “reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it”. The stultifying heat in a factory is described as “though someone had packed the sky into a box”; the coming wet season presaged as “a rumour about to be true”.

Holiday in Cambodia ends with a remarkably assured Graham Greene­like colonial tale, The Deep Ambition of Rossi.

It’s set during a 1951 bathing suit competition, and the blight of entitlement ­ whether of the colonial bureaucrats or the royal patronage system ­ pricks on the tongue like sour gin.

Holiday in Cambodia
By Laura Jean McKay Black Inc, 224pp, $24.99

James Tierney is a Sydney­based writer.