The Rent Collector

by Camron Wright 

     Based on a real place, but the story is fictional. About a family in Cambodia that lived on the outskirts of the largest waste dump in the country- making a meager living by picking through the trash for recyclables. Each day they barely earn enough to eat that night, and their young child is chronically ill. Sang Ly, the mother, despairs about the misery of her life- until she suddenly finds out that the short-tempered drunk woman who collects their rent (for a shack made out of tarps and cardboard on the edge of a cesspool) is literate. She convinces this woman to teach her to read- hoping it will somehow help her family improve their circumstances.

It does, but not at all in the way I expected. I thought- oh, they\’ll be able to read instructions on the medicines foreign doctors at free clinics keep giving them, that never seem to work, or they\’ll learn that having to pay rent for the crummy place where they live is a scam, or they\’ll be able to leave the dump and find better employment, thanks to becoming literate. Nope. Instead, woven through the whole length of the book are lessons on living true to yourself, making the best choices, rising above your circumstances, etc- all presented in the snippets of poetry and literature that the rent collector teaches to Sang Ly. Who, by the way, learned to read incredibly fast and was soon presented with summarized versions of Moby Dick and Romeo and Juliet by her teacher. I found that really hard to swallow the idea that her reading skills would have progressed so quickly. There are many Cambodian fables and myths as well- including their version of the Cinderella story- which I enjoyed and found very interesting. As the relationship between Sang Ly and her teacher grows more trusting, she starts to learn things about the rent collector\’s past- which makes everything start to appear in a different light. The ending has some very tidy connections, that are emotional but also a tad unbelievable. Through the novel there are glimpses of other aspects of life in Cambodia- a bit about the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge (which I know a little of from watching The Killing Fields), a look at life in the countryside when Sang Ly visits family, mention of child trafficking when an orphan girl in the dump faces the threat of being sold into prostitution by her older brother who\’s in a gang. I was puzzled when Sang Ly\’s child was given a traditional cure by a healer- and then afterwards seem miraculously better. My western brain tried to figure out how this worked- and my best guess was that the healer fed the child charcoal mixed into paste which absorbed some toxins the child had in its body from living in a waste dump his whole life. But really, who knows. I don\’t have to have an explanation, it\’s a story.
I really liked the parts about literature, even if they stretched my sense of belief somewhat. Aspects of the story- how learning to read opened up the world for this young woman and her family- reminded me somewhat of The Book Thief. Totally different setting and circumstances, but similar message about how books and knowledge can change lives. But- reading some other reviews (especially on LibraryThing) and finding out how about the author\’s inspiration for this story- how much he appropriated from a poor family who probably never saw any benefit- makes me feel uneasy about liking it. 

Rating: 3/5           271 pages, 2012
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