THE GIRL WHO SAID GOODBYE is an important human story told with a wealth of compassion. The work offers a seminar in Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge, as well as a harrowing account of resilience. Eng carefully describes the hierarchy of the new Khmer Rouge society, educating the uniformed and reminding the knowledgeable. She notes that the often brutal Mulethan—village farmers who lived in the countryside prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover and put in charge of the “new” people” (“city people” such as Siv Eng)—were also sometimes compassionate. Sing states, “A handful of the Mulethan committed acts of covert compassion. They sympathized with our situation and saw us as people with families. They recognized that the Angkar ideology was a disease that was eradicating our people, our country, and our land” (pg 79). Sociopolitical and historical elements are woven into this deeply personal story. The memoir telescopes between being on the ground with the narrator and zooming out to the larger Khmer Rouge occupation.
Cambodian cultural elements are also intertwined in the chronicle, which creates a third dimension in this complex, multifaceted plot. For example, when in a work camp the narrator recalls a horrifying experience of waking, in the middle of the night, to “something pushing on [her] chest…[she] saw the shape of a hand in the light from the fire. It was attached to an enormous, hairy arm” (pg 99). Eng had been asked by a friend to sleep in the space because the friend, too, had had a similar experience. Eng recounts the startling incident, placing it into the greater social context: “Superstitions and ghosts were very real in Cambodian culture…I never slept up in the bed again, and the woman never asked. She faced her tormentor alone” (pg 200). The short chapter ends here, and the reader is left with the triple meaning of the event: the literal experience, the backdrop of Cambodian superstition, and the notion of constant torment coming from the entirety of the Khmer Rouge dystopia.
Succinct chapters that interweave personal anecdotes, Cambodian cultural history, and the indoctrination of the Khmer Rouge all serve to create a page-turning memoir of emotional and historical breadth–and ultimately, compassion and forgiveness–in Heather Allen’s memoir, THE GIRL WHO SAID GOODBYE.
~Geoff Watkinson for IndieReader