Some books are written solely for entertainment — “popcorn” books, I like to think of them. Some books exist only to inform, like textbooks. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find a book that manages to instill profound lessons while at the same time presenting a complex, compelling story. Luckily for me, my most recent read, and favorite book of the year so far, is an excellent example of the latter.
Sang Ly, a young wife and mother living in the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in Cambodia, must pick through refuse and garbage — even human waste — to find things to sell to feed her family. Her infant son is ill, and Sang Ly is losing hope that he will ever get better. To make things worse, Sang Ly and her family must pay rent to a cruel, drunk old woman named Sopeap Sin, who is wholly unforgiving of late or missed payments. One day, however, an unexpected find in the dump reveals that there’s much more to Sopeap than meets the eye, and she and Sang Ly form a tenuous friendship based on the only thing they have in common: the desire for a second chance.
One of the most striking things about this book is its intricate mixture of despair and hopefulness and the struggle to find happiness in a world often filled with disappointment. Despite her hardships, particularly the fact that she lives in a garbage dump, Sang Ly has an admirably optimistic view of her circumstances. Never does she bemoan the fact that she is poor and uneducated and her prospects are few; instead, she goes about finding ways to better herself, even if that means enlisting the help of a woman like Sopeap. The Rent Collector herself becomes an unlikely protagonist as her story is slowly revealed: a tragic past set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge regime that overtook Cambodia in the 1970s and was responsible for the murders of millions, particularly the educated.
If you’re looking for a fulfilling read about the sense of purpose that comes from helping others get another chance at life, as well as the redemptive and changing power of literature, look no further than The Rent Collector.
Rated: Mild. Some violence, a few deaths that are not depicted in graphic detail. A few allusions to forced prostitution. No explicit language.