“Out of the Ruins” brings today’s Cambodia to life

Courtesy of Ward Wood Publishing

“Out of the Ruins” by Sue Guiney, copyright 2014 from Ward Wood Publishing, London. Paperback, 247 pages. $11.55. Available from Edgartown Books, Alley’s General Store, and online booksellers.

Deborah Youngman, the intrepid director of the Khmer Home for Blessed  Children in Phnom Peh, Cambodia, returns in Sue Guiney’s new novel, Out of the Ruins. The novelist, poet, and longtime Island summer resident introduced Deborah to readers in her 2010 novel A Clash of Innocents. This time nurse Deborah, surrogate mother to her protégée Srey from the orphanage, steps back to let a group of other characters take center stage. About to turn 20 and become a full-fledged nurse herself, Srey is the only Khmer-speaking staff member at the brand-new Your Clinic for Women in Siem Reap. That tourist city is known for its Buddhist temples, including the 12th largest religious building in the world. Srey is joined by Dr. Diarmuid McDonough, an Irishman and the lead doctor at the clinic, and his second-in-command, Dr. Gemma Taylor. Acting as administrator, Canadian Fred De La Rose is still recovering from the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Kyle Mackenzie, who has helped de-activate Cambodia’s minefields and played an important role in A Clash of Innocents, reveals an unexpected relationship to Srey in this new novel. Two more Khmer characters, tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxi) driver Billy, and Pech, a pianist raised in a Singaporean refugee camp during the era of Pol Pot, complete the roster.

This expansive cast of characters allows Ms. Guiney to explore in satisfying ways how Khmer and “barang” (foreigner) cultures interact in modern Cambodia. The troubled and elusive Dr. Diarmuid disappears a little too often on his motorcycle; Dr. Gemma seems overwhelmed by culture shock at first, and Srey struggles to assume her rightful place as an adult and professional in a Western-style clinic. Billy connects the clinic staff to the working-class world of Cambodia, and Pech straddles two cultural worlds in interesting ways.

A close and careful observer, Ms. Guiney provides a background that resonates with aspects of Cambodia’s past and present in ways that feel comfortable for both those who have spent time in Cambodia and those not familiar with it. Srey may attend aerobics classes, but she also practices Apsara dancing, the classical Cambodian form of ballet. Descriptions of visits to Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap Lake are enriched by the responses of both barang and Khmer characters.

Most important, the author addresses some of the serious problems suffered by a country still recovering from the genocide it experienced in the 1970s under the despotic rule of Pol Pot. In particular, she focuses on the hardships experienced by women. A nine-year-old girl is brought to the clinic with shrapnel wounds from a landmine explosion; a new mother dies from a post-partum hemorrhage that might have been avoided in a country with a more advanced medical infrastructure. Each character responds to the challenges faced in unique ways, and the shocking conclusion asks the reader to think long and hard about clashing cultures. Ms. Guiney provides an entertaining and fluent guide to life in a very different part of the world.