Hold onto your hats, folks, it’s time for another “Five Things I’ve Learned” review. Today I have a YA novel featuring a Canadian in Laos – The Merit Birds by Kelley Powell. I received a digital copy from the publisher in exchange for review. I should probably warn the faint of heart that this review WILL contain mild spoilers. You have been warned. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
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.
So here are Five Things I’ve Learned from
The Merit Birds
1. Travelling white folk have an almost uncanny ability to be intrusive, entitled and generally insensitive in cultures not their own.
2. Lao people are partial to the phrase boh penh nyang – no worries.
3. Drinking and driving will get you into trouble.
4. In the worst of situations, sometimes all you can do is breathe.
5. Life is hard, but it’s harder when you don’t admit to your mistakes.
Right. I have mixed feelings about this book. The Merit Birds is told through three perspectives, those of Cam, 18-year-old, whinging, pity-party-throwing, Canadian basketballer; Nok, youngest of three siblings, who could have gone to university but instead must work to support her family in the local massage parlour; and Seng, Nok’s older brother, who tries to be useful and has a burning desire to go to America. The perspectives alternate as Nok and Cam form a tentative friendship and Seng tries to contact his older sister Vong in order to get to America and a better life.
The story begins slowly as the reader is introduced to Cam’s backstory and treated to his shock and dismay at having to live in a place such as Lao. We meet the all-round good bloke and Cam’s next-door neighbour, Somchai, and find out more about Nok and Seng’s parents and why the siblings have been left on their own. When Cam and Nok’s friendship develops into a romance, the plot begins to move more quickly and soon enough the story has more twists than a kinked-up garden hose.
I had a couple of problems with this book. While I enjoyed the book overall, I felt Cam’s storyline was just a waste of space. I know that must sound strange, given that Cam is the main character and the focus of the story, but I was far more interested in the Lao characters and would have quite happily read a book (with a few plot tweaks, obviously) based just around them. Cam as a character didn’t really work for me because I couldn’t see how he had grown over the course of the book and he generally just brought the whole thing down for me because…
**Here’s some spoilers! Look away if you don’t want to know!**
…in the beginning Cam spends his time whining and moaning because he is living in Laos, but we are told that he actually had the option to remain in Canada but didn’t take it. He’s rude, dismissive and generally a right little snot to his mother (for reasons that are clearly explained) but this didn’t endear me to him in any way. He’s 18. An adult. This kid needs to grow up! Then he physically assaults an opposing basketball team player to the point that he is in a serious condition. When this comes back to haunt him later on in the book, it’s overshadowed by the false allegation and at no point does Cam ever take responsibility for cracking another person’s vertebrae. Nor does his mother in fact. Both just seemed shocked that anyone would be wanting to press charges over such grievous bodily harm. And when, at the end of the book, Cam exits the prison into his mother’s waiting arms, I cannot help but feel that he will go trapping off back to Canada, complaining about how badly he was treated, never giving thought to the myriad of ways in which he contributed to his own sh*tty situation.
Overall, I found this to be an original and engaging story, with the Lao characters, their culture and history the main points of interest to me. I admit that I’m not really sure what message to take from the book (because I’m sure there’s some wisdom hiding in the pages, if I could only puzzle it out) but if you are looking for a YA novel that is different from your average contemporary romance, that features fleshed out characters and an alternative perspective then this may just be what you’re looking for.
Until next time,