Camron Wright’s uneven tale of redemption and education, The Rent Collector, is set in the very real garbage dump of Stung Meanchay, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, eke out a living picking recyclables out of the garbage. Most of their money goes to pay the rent for their shack on the borders of the dump. Their son is constantly ill and the family often have to use their rent money to pay for medicine. But everything changes on the day the rent collector threatens them with eviction when Sang Ly finds a children’s book among the trash.
The book leads to a bargain between Sang Ly and the rent collector, Sopeap Sin. In exchange for the book, Sopeap Sin will teach Sang Ly how to read. Sang Ly believes that education (via reading) will help the family find a way out of Stung Meanchay. The grouchy drunk Sopeap reluctantly agrees, because the book has sentimental value for her. Over a few short chapters, a rough friendship developed between the renter and the landlady.
While there are some beautiful moments towards the end of The Rent Collector, the book did not work for me. Sang Ly’s character wavers between illiterate naif and precocious savant. Most of the exposition sounds like it comes straight out of a journalistic exposé. If my book club hadn’t picked this book for this month, I would have dropped it within twenty pages.
The only character in The Rent Collector that rang true to me was Sopeap Sin, former literature professor/Khmer Rouge victim/rent collector. She’s the only character with any depth. She’s prickly and profound by turns. She’s haunted by what she had to do to survive the Khmer Rouge, to the point where she won’t pursue further treatment for her cancer. (There are further revelations about Sopeap Sin’s attempts to atone at the end of The Rent Collector.)
Unfortunately, Sopeap Sin is not the narrator and we don’t see enough of her to off-set the bland goodness of Sang Ly and Ki Lim or the barely described misery of life in Stung Meanchay. With the exception of the eponymous rent collector, this book was shallow as a slick of oil on a puddle.
I had not heard of this book but my first reaction to your review is: someone tried to export Bernard Schlink’s Reader to Cambodge, well, good luck with that. Maybe it’s only prejudice, but I’d give this book more chances if it was written by a Cambodian rather than an American.
That’s a fair comparison. Wright, however, doesn’t have Schlink’s writing chops. And I agree! If this book had been written by a Cambodian (or by someone who had done more research about Cambodia and its history than Googling it for a few days), it could have been quite good.