Loung Ung’s Lulu in the Sky – the author’s third memoir – follows her adult life in Vermont and her budding romance with husband Mark Priemer, with the emotional tumult of her childhood never more than arm’s length away.
Living through the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh at the age of five, Ung lost both parents to the arbitrary excesses of the Angkar, lived through conscription as a childhood soldier, and narrowly escaped an attempted rape at the age of nine during the Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia.
There’s been a veritable explosion of memoir on bookstore shelves in the last decade, a result of the threat of digital competition driving publishers to seek refuge in more commercially assured products.
At their best, modern memoirs are skilful and profoundly affecting snapshots of human experience deftly situated within their historical context; at their worst, they are naff reflections about what sort of person drinks which sort of coffee.
Far more common is the bastard child of both: an unsatisfying gap between glimpses of the truly extraordinary and a dragging narrative.
There are many commendable things in Ung’s latest work, not least her brave and unrestrained exploration of the lingering emotional damage wrought by her youth – something never appreciated with enough vigour even by nominally compassionate foreigners living in Cambodia.
Some readers may occasionally find her unfolding relationship with Priemer overly mawkish, but at heart it remains a beautiful love story painfully tempered by Ung’s fitful struggle to move on from the past.
The book’s shortcomings will be more apparent to locals than other potential readers. Tailored for an international audience, those who’ve resided in Cambodia for more than a month or two will find Ung’s periodic discussion of history mostly perfunctory and uninformative.
Many expats will have already lived through her description of Cambodian family life and the introduction of her boyfriend to her familial village. There’s little sense of place in describing Phnom Penh at the turn of the century, which seems like a missed opportunity after a decade of such palpable change in the life of this city, and there is a lot of overlap from her previous two works in the interests of producing a self-contained narrative.
Lulu in the Sky deserves to be read by people abroad and Ung should be praised for her tireless campaign on behalf of Cambodians. Local readers seeking a more edifying work would do better to instead pick up a copy of her heart-rending debut, First They Killed My Father.
Lulu in the Sky is available at Monument Books.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]