Thursday, January 31, 2019

Fiction Review: The Rent Collector

My neighborhood book group met this month to discuss a novel I'd never heard of before, The Rent Collector by Camron Wright. This fictional story about a real-life family in Cambodia garnered one of our highest ratings ever, and everyone in the group enjoyed it.

Ki Lim and his wife, Sang Ly, live at Stung Meachey, the largest garbage dump in Cambodia, located in the city of Phnom Penh. Their sixteen-month old baby, Nisay, is very ill, with chronic diarrhea and a poor appetite, making him lethargic and unable to keep food down. They have taken him to some of the clinics run by Western doctors nearby, and their medicine seems to work, but when he finishes it, his symptoms return. Ki Lim makes his living by sorting through trash and selling whatever is recyclable or using whatever is salvageable. It sounds like a tough existence, and it is, but Sang Ly has a positive attitude:
"I don't intend to portray the place  as miserable or entirely without joy. On the contrary - in spite of its hardships, there are slivers of time when life at the dump feels normal, almost beautiful. Pigs forage in the dirt lanes, children pick teams and play soccer, mothers and fathers banter about their day, babies are born, life presses on."
The rent collector at the dump is named Sopeap Sin, though most people just call her The Rent Collector or, behind her back, The Cow. She's an angry and bitter woman, but Sang Ly discovers an unexpected side to her. When she finds a children's picture book in the dump and brings it home for Nisay, Sopeap spots it when she comes for the rent, and her whole countenance changes. Sang Ly can see that Sopeap knows how to read - a rarity in Cambodia - and she tells her she can have the book if she will teach her how to read. Thus begins a series of lessons, first in literacy and then in literature, that change the lives of all involved.

The real-life backstory of this novel is just as fascinating as the fiction. Ki Lim, Sang Ly, and Nisay are a real family who really did live at Stung Meachey, and the details of their life there are true. The author's son made a documentary called River of Victory about the dump and its residents, and through that, the author came to know of the family. In fact, there are even real-life photos of them and the dump and its other residents at the back of the book (read the print book so you can see the full-color photos). I also learned a lot about Cambodia's history from this novel. The story of Sang Ly learning to read is the fictional story that Camron Wright built around the bones of facts. The passages about Sang Ly's reading lessons include literary excerpts from around the world and discussions between her and Sopeap about stories and their meaning, which any book lover will enjoy. Here, they talk about a Cinderella-like story from Cambodia, and its replication in every culture on earth:
"Sang Ly, the desire to believe, to look forward to better days, to want them, to expect them - it seems to be ingrained in our being. Whether we like it or not, hope is written so deeply into our hearts that we just can't help ourselves, no matter how hard we try otherwise."
The novel is filled with beautiful passages like that, and I tabbed many pages to transfer to my Quote Journal. Along the way, as they explore literature, Sopeap's story comes out, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. This novel is a beautiful, moving story about life, hope, and the power of books, and I highly recommend it.

See this website for a video trailer of the documentary, River of Victory, plus photos and more information.

288 pages, Shadow Mountain

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

You can purchase the DVD of the documentary, River of Victory (which also includes a follow-up film, Finding Sang Ly, which follows the main character afterward) at Amazon - I just bought it for myself!

Listen to a sample of the audiobook of The Rent Collector.

You can purchase The Rent Collector from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order The Rent Collector from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. Sounds good, I've added it to my list at the library.

    1. Great! I think you'll like it, Vicki!

  2. I remember seeing this book mentioned on one of your wrap-ups and this full review makes me want to read it even more. I am so glad there are photos, etc in the back of the book.

    1. Yes, it's a great story, Helen, but even more fascinating when you realize much of it is based on real life!

  3. This sounds like a good one Sue. Glad your group enjoyed it.

    1. It's rare that we all agree, Diane, but we did on this one!