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.
This is my fourth attempt at an introductory paragraph for this post. I am literally clueless about where to start. Should I begin with how impressed I was with the writing? How Powell was able to capture that which makes us all human and encase it with words, plop them down in circumstances we possibly couldn’t understand, slap them with some names and introduce them to us as her characters? How, towards the end, this book became something larger, something much beyond what I expected?
(I can hear the fridge humming as I sit and stare at the blinking cursor that seems to mock at the sudden deficiency of my virtual loquacity. No, seriously, what has happened to me? There is every possibility that it’s because it’s been inexcusably long since I last wrote anything resembling a book review. That said, I’ll still shamelessly throw in my regular excuse: college life is screwing with me.)
I have read books set in places, casting people geographically, ethnically, and culturally contrasting to the author’s. While most of them treaded upon that road which was less travelled by, they did so with a sense of caution. They knew how they were susceptible to errata, and how they could multiply in terms of consequence, however meticulous their data collection might have been. And so the tragedy remained that the audience could never fully get under the layers of the characters. Books starring POC characters became the sort of thing that you had on GR shelves labelled POC and as a bullet point in Diversity In Books campaigns. This book is that rare book that goes the whole way FLAWLESSLY. I won’t pretend I know the mechanics of how Laos and its people run (I don’t) – but I could immediately relate to the characters, being Asian myself. How Seng was fascinated by America – land of the rich, home of Hollywood. Or the picture of it in his mind. How the locals immediately resorted to head-shaking and frowning when they see a boy and a girl together. How Lao guys don’t think too much before throwing an arm around another guy’s neck. How two members of a family don’t see shame in sharing a bed together. How an individual puts his family before himself. How they can’t understand why the white-skinned people would dry-wipe their asses after having a crap. All little things, especially in the way these facts are thrown in the readers’ faces like a careless inconsequential detail. But they went a long way in defining those tricky edges of the characters.
This book teems with life. There is that boy who’s dealing with culture shock – starting with the fact that he has to shit into a hole in the ground. Like he already doesn’t have enough to deal with – anger management issues, mom issues, dad issues and homesickness. There is that girl that survives alone through all the shit life throws at her and becomes guarded to the point that she shies away from the possibility of love. There is her older brother who feels the weight of the title as the head of the family after being abandoned repeatedly – first by his parents, then his older sister. A weight further amplified by the sense of his failure in the same. Khamdeng with his loyalty. Somchai with his capacity to love. Sai with his wisdom and patience. Julia with all her sins. All merit birds. The victory of this book is that it tries to get under all the layers of most of the characters – including the ones skulking on the periphery of the main plot.
At first, I didn’t get why only Cam got a first-person. I mean, this story is as much as Seng’s and Nok’s as his, right? But then Somchai rebukes Cam for thinking only about himself, contrary to the Lao and I realized that might be it. That’s when I got my hint this story was on its way to evolving into something more.
Yes, by that I’m implying that I judged this book. It had every promise of turning into a love story spanning across borders of all sorts – and then suddenly it was not just that. In fact, somewhere around the middle I desperately wished it had stopped at a love story. At first, the plot steadily climbed the plot hill at a measured pace and then things crashed and burned. Spontaneously combusted. And I was the sole survivor – left to collect the pieces and make sense of it. That was the thing I disliked the most about this book – the incredulous rapidity with which a series of unfortunate events unfolded. The middle was the lowest point of the book – the peak of the plot hill felt staged.
Despite that and other minor failings, this book is a must read for all those who scream blood for diversity in books. This is a book that you should read at least twice – first to read the lines, second to read between them.
VERDICT: 4 STARS