The Rent Collector
Author: Camron Wright
Winner: 2012 Book of the Year Gold Winner (Foreword Magazine), 2012 Best Novel of the Year (Whitney Awards), Honorable Mention (Great Southwest Book Festival), 2013 One Read Selection (California Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society of Outstanding Women Educators)
Original Publication: 2012
The Rent Collector takes place in Cambodia in the aftermath of the Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge Communist regime. Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, are “pickers”; that is, they live in a shantytown in Stung Meanchey, the garbage dump outside Phnom Penh, and make their living picking through the trash for recyclables. Owing to their poor living conditions, their infant son, Nisay, is chronically ill. Their existence is punctuated once per month by the appearance of the rent collector, Sopeap Sin. Sopeap Sin is an elderly, unpleasant and often drunk woman who squeezes every last dime from the residents of Stung Meanchey. Like all tenants, they pay in order to avoid being thrown into the street, which actually seems marginally better to me than living in a tarpaper shack atop a burning pile of garbage.
One day, Ki Lim is robbed by a roving gang and when Sopeap Sin arrives to collect the rent, Sang Ly is unable to pay. Ki Lim did manage to bring home a book, thinking that the illustrations would at least amuse Nisay. The Khmer Rouge executed much of the educated populace in favor of easily controlled poor, so nobody they know is able to read. Sopeap Sin threatens the family, but when she glimpses Nisay’s book, she falls to her knees, greedily thumbing through it, and Sang Ly begins to suspect that Sopeap Sin can secretly read. The two strike up a bargain, and Sopeap Sin agrees to teach Sang Ly. Sang Ly quickly discovers that Sopeap Sin not only can read, but is highly educated and knows all about literature. They begin reading and discussing stories.
Meanwhile, Sang Ly has dreamed that the Healer in her home province holds the key to Nisay’s health, and the family begins to make plans to travel there. When they return, Sopeap Sin has disappeared and they discover that she is gravely ill. Sang Ly and her family immediately set about finding her and solving the mystery of who she really is before her time runs out.
Fun Fact: The story is fiction, but Stung Meanchey, Sang Ly and her family, and many of the other characters in the story are real. The Rent Collector was based on a documentary called River of Victory. The author wove a fictional story about the actual people, imagining what might happen if a family under those circumstances were given the gift of literacy. Stung Meanchey closed in 2009 and an alternate dump was opened, upon which no homes are allowed. Most of the pickers who lived there are now on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Bother if: I read this novel in a sitting, and may have teared up a few times. It’s a truly wonderful story; some say about the triumph and perseverance of the human spirit. It is, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as an homage to the written word, and the story of a woman who begins to realize that stories – her stories, her neighbor’s stories, all written stories – are the key to her freedom at least spiritually, if not physically. It is her literacy which makes every opportunity possible. It is her literacy which opens up her entire worldview. I particularly enjoyed a section where Sang Ly laments that either she doesn’t understand Moby Dick, or Herman Melville was a terrible writer, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to her are fairly concrete concepts. After an incident which is anything but black and white, Sang Ly reflects on Moby Dick, realizing that Herman Melville understood the human experience perfectly after all – no hero is all good, and no villain is all evil.
Don’t bother if: There isn’t anything inordinately offensive about this book. I thought it was a very engaging story, but the subject matter is necessarily grim. I’m not sure I’ve read a story about a more destitute group of people. Destitute, however, does not equal hopeless. That said, “feel good” stories aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, either. As for me, I didn’t think I’d be at all interested in the depressing subject matter, and would not have ever chosen to read this without the catalyst of a book club meeting to spur me on, but I am pleased to have read it. I am, however, a sucker for homages to literature.