“Clash of Innocents” plunges readers into modern Cambodia


“A Class of Innocents,” by Sue Guiney, Ward Wood Publishing. 254 pp., $14.

Unless they happen to choose it as an exotic vacation destination, most Americans — even those who lived through the Vietnam War — have forgotten about Cambodia. This Indochinese kingdom was swallowed in chaos when the radical Khmer Rouge movement led by Maoist revolutionary Pol Pot took over in 1975, after the Western occupation of Vietnam ended.

Before the Vietnamese threw them out in 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered one-third of the Cambodian population. It was a genocide that became known as the Killing Fields, named after the nightmarish expanses of gravesites.

Novelist, poet, and Chilmark summer resident Sue Guiney’s novel, “A Clash of Innocents,” tells a story of life in modern Cambodia. It helps remind us of the havoc wreaked by the U.S. and other Western nations in that part of the world back in the ’70s and how the Cambodians are trying to recover. Kara Taylor Fine Art will host a reception for the novel on Monday, August 15.

In “A Clash of Innocents,” protagonist Deborah Youngman guides the reader through a year in her life as director of the Khmer Home for Blessed Children. Ms. Guiney combines the intimacy of a diary format with the visual pleasures of travelogue.

Beginning in February, each chapter opens with a quotation from a “Touristic Handbook” that sets the scene for those unfamiliar with this lushly beautiful nation. Then Ms. Guiney immerses the reader in Cambodian culture.

Raised near Kent State University in Ohio, Deborah has dark memories of the 1970 massacre on that campus, where she held a dying friend in her blood-covered arms. Deborah has escaped to Cambodia to care for orphans in that third-world nation.

Her cadre of friends includes the Aussie Kyle, who works as a minesweeper as well as in more questionable occupations. Deborah has adopted a Cambodian girl named Sam, who helps her run the nun-founded organization.

Amanda, a secretive young American Peace Corps veteran, shows up at the orphanage and asks to volunteer. Cynical Deborah is immediately suspicious and on guard. Then a premature baby is left at the orphanage doorstep, and Amanda immediately bonds with the infant, much to Deborah’s dismay.

As the months pass — each chapter heading offers another month — life at the orphanage unfolds. Deborah refuses to give the baby, who is not thriving, a name.

Her adopted daughter Sam struggles over whether to accept an offer to attend Kent State. Amanda refuses to reveal her tragic past, and Kyle tries to get Amanda to open up.

Deborah is far from your average heroine. Cranky, cynical, and cigarette-addicted, she vacillates between an American vernacular of foul language and one (“old girl”) more suited to Britain, where Ms. Guiney lives in the off-season.

The strengths of the novel are its immediacy and the close observations the novelist makes on what these people are like. Sometimes the reader will feel cultural whiplash as the novelist wavers between language appropriate to an American but unusual for a character of Deborah’s 60-ish age.

Ms. Guiney’s easy style and her attention to language (she is a poet as well as a novelist) keep the novel flowing. This is a deeply felt novel where sometimes-awkward tone shifts give way to powerful psychological insights, insightful character analysis, and contemplative commentary that keeps the reader engaged and thinking.

Ms. Guiney masterfully weaves in current events relevant to the story. For instance, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia approve the rules governing the 2006 Tribunal established to investigate crimes allegedly committed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Deborah’s adopted daughter Sam attends the hearings.

Sometimes Deborah’s voice seems too strong for the way the other characters see her. What’s most important, though, is that she’s not a conventional heroine. Forget about Anita Shreve’s delicately delineated heroines. Deborah is a gritty original. This is no “A Year in Provence.” That romantic idyll pales behind the insights revealed in “A Clash of Innocents.”

Will Sam decide to go to Kent State? Will Amanda make a romantic commitment to Kyle? You must read the novel to find out.

Novelists such as Ken Follett (“The Pillars of the Earth”) and John Irving (“The Cider House Rules”) idealize the imaginary worlds of their page-turning novels. Ms. Guiney offers something more substantive: the unvarnished truth about Cambodia.

Readers will come to appreciate the uniqueness of Deborah as a character. At the end of the novel, Ms. Guiney suggests that the Tribunal’s calling to account for crimes committed in the 1970s of Phnom Penh — as well as those at Kent State in America — may offer a remedy for vengeance. That insight gets to the heart of the novel and might have made just as appropriate a title as “A Clash of Innocence.”

Book Signing, Monday, Aug. 15, 6–8 pm, Kara Taylor Fine Art, Vineyard Haven.

Brooks Robards, of Oak Bluffs and Northampton, is a frequent contributor to The Times.