Eighteen-year-old Cam Scott is angry. He’s angry about his absent dad, he’s angry about being angry, and he’s angry that he has had to give up his Ottawa basketball team to follow his mom to her new job in Vientiane, Laos. However, Cam’s anger begins to melt under the Southeast Asian sun as he finds friendship with his neighbour, Somchai, and gradually falls in love with Nok, who teaches him about building merit, or karma, by doing good deeds, such as purchasing caged “merit birds.”
Tragedy strikes and Cam finds himself falsely accused of a crime. His freedom depends on a person he’s never met. A person who knows that the only way to restore his merit is to confess. “The Merit Birds” blends action and suspense and humour in a far-off land where things seem so different, yet deep down are so much the same.
***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley & Dundurn Group.
The Merit Birds is a cultural revelation. The journey into Laos is gritty, potent, and mesmerizing, you’ll get lost in the eye-opening imagery.
- The Laos culture is brought to life in honest, colorful imagery. Not everything is lush foliage or deeply imbedded spiritualism, sometimes is graphically grotesque, dirty, lapped with stereotypes that are based in reality and thought-provoking.
- One of the strongest threads was romance between a foreigner (falang) and a native-someone who is white like “cheese” and “brown” people. The assumptions foreigners make about massage parlors, how “native” women are treated as less than, as something that can be bought and exploited, the dangers of working amongst Westerners who think this way, and how the “native” girl is perceived by both sides as a prostitute was especially powerful. The restrictions placed on people on who they can love and how they’ll be treated are raw and make you think. Nok’s story is deep, heartbreaking, and encompasses the trials a smart woman faces in a country with little money, despite NGO and aid worker help. Nok had dreams of attending university, she worked hard through school but life had other plans. Her daily struggle to stay positive despite her spirit being crushed continuously was inspirational. Nok does what she must and keeps the faith that things will get better.
- Told through several perspectives, each character is unique and represents variations of the Laos culture. It’s fascinating to hear their thought processes and see the weight of their faith.
- The concept of merit gets lost. For something that is the foundation of the book, there wasn’t enough stress on what it is and what it means to the Laos culture to grasp its significance. While the scene releasing the merit birds is beautiful and poetic, it seems more like an act of mourning than redemption.
- Though Cam faces challenges in the Laos prison, he doesn’t come to terms with his crimes. Cam grows in heart but as a character he hardly changes at all. I kept waiting for him to redeem himself, to own up to the fact that he was wrong (I mean, the guy violently attacked someone bad enough to put him in a hospital and face charges) but never once does he apologize or feel as guilty as he should. Cam is a spoiled, self-absorbed character and it’s hard to like him. He values only the things that make him happy and nothing else. He can’t get past his own needs and ignores the suffering of those around him. He’s so stubborn he takes people for granted and you kind of want to smack some sense into him, force him to look at everything he has right in front of his face.
- There are many story arcs that thread in and out of each other but don’t mesh as seamlessly as they could have. Some parts that could have strengthened the overall story were neglected, like communist re-education, the Laos criminal trial process, Buddhism, etc. The last section of the book felt scattered and random. What could have been the most crucial scene in the novel, the confession scene was summarized. A couple lines on something that had built up for a huge chunk of the book left me feeling dissatisfied and confused.
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