Oddly enough, this is the second novel I've read this year about Cambodia, and neither one were recent purchases. Unfortunately, I didn't find either one completely satisfying, and think I might need to move on to some non-fiction to get a better picture. Having said that, In the Shadow of the Banyan was the better of the two novels, but I think sometimes it used art too much to escape. I can see that as a valid coping method, but it is also kept me at a bit of a distance.
This novel, on the other hand, was just mostly irritating. There were parts later on that almost get close to explaining the impact and the horror, but I didn't enjoy the style or the narrator. The novel was basically written as if addressed to the narrator's dead lover, and if the novel had maybe started off in journal or epistolary format, it might have worked for me better, but I spent the first few chapters waiting for it to change. Fortunately, it was a short novel. I think the main reason I didn't connect with this is because I didn't buy the love story. The narrator has spent the last thirty years pining over a man she met when she was 16, and remains obsessed with for the rest of her life. They met while he was a student in Canada but he returns home to Cambodia to find his family once the border reopens. After that, she doesn't hear from him for ten years, but decides to travel to Cambodia on a lark after she sees him on TV. I can see where given his background and circumstances, he would make a greater impression than a normal first boyfriend but not enough for her to be mooning over him ten years later.
I feel like this could have been played in a different way and worked but instead it just read as obsession, and made me want to yell at her that a few months at sixteen don't make the guy the love of her life. For example, if her interactions with him had inspired her to become a journalist, and they reconnected while she was on assignment in Cambodia - I totally would have bought that story and wouldn't have wanted to strangle her for acting like a selfish love sick teenager for the entire novel. Seriously, she later puts people in danger because of her inability to let go or grasp the severity of situation.
I think what happened in Cambodia is a story worth telling but instead in this novel we only get glimpses of the tragedy filtered through someone else's ramblings. I also read a novel earlier this year which tried to do a magic realism take on the Holocaust, and I think for me, I prefer straightforward, simple narratives for those types of tragedies to being distracted by beautiful or convoluted writing that obscures the events. Rather than providing new insight or illuminating the tragedy in creative ways, they can easily diminish the reality of what actually happened. The Book Thief works because the story is still very much grounded in reality, even with its untraditional narrator. Just to clarify, this novel doesn't use magic realism, but it and the Holocaust novel tried approaches that didn't work for me.