The Rent Collector is a novel inspired on a documentary The River of Victory, the largest dump in Cambodia called Strung Meanchey. The story follows the lives of Sang Ly; wife and mother, Ki Lim; husband and father, Nisay;the sickly child, and Sopeap Sin, the Rent Collector. Sang and Ki struggle to make a life as “pickers” in the dump community. Sopeap is the mean, drunk, rent collector with more than one secret. The story really begins when Sopeap sees a book Ki found and brought home for Li to show to their child. Show, not read, because they are illiterate.
I was expecting a dark, dreary novel about the sufferings of the poor in a war ravaged country. Despite the setting in a dump, an entire community of people living in a dump the book seems to look beyond the sheer misery of the situation. Life seems normal for the people in the book. Yes there are money problems and environmental problems but they seem to be taken in stride. Overall, there is a very positive light shining on the dump.
The book makes references to several cultural aspects of life in Cambodia, from local remedies to the Buddha. The Cambodian Buddha is skinny compared to the fat Buddha of China, perhaps a truer picture of the Buddha who fasted and begged for food or maybe a reflection of the realities of poverty being reflected in the culture (Other religions do the same,much like a blonde haired, blue-eye Jesus of Scandinavian culture). The overall poverty of the country is also brought up in several different areas from NGOs, foreign medical clinics, and a bus retired from duties in Thailand.
In The Rent Collector there are a few insertions of traditional Cambodian stories into the story. One such story is Sarann, the Cambodian version of Cinderella and the inclusion that there are many versions of the same story. This rings true with The Rent Collector also. When I first started reading the book the language seemed a bit simple. I looked over the book thinking it may be a Young Adult book. After further reading, it dawned on me that it is written more as a fable like Coelho’s The Alchemist or a more subdued Illusions by Bach. The story is there as a wrapper to cover the lessons being taught, which ties back into the story, cleverly.
The Rent Collector is a very worthwhile read. It was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Poverty is a backdrop in the story and not the story itself. I read it through the course of a Sunday without rushing and without wanting to put the book down. A very solid “four star” rating.
Disclosure: I received The Rent Collector free from Goodreads book giveaways. It was a book I chose based on the Publishers description and my interest in Asia.