________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 23 . . . . February 20, 2015


The Merit Birds.

Kelley Powell.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2015.
230 pp., trade pbk., EPUB & pdf, $14.99 (pbk.), $8.99 (EPUB), $14.95 (pdf).
ISBN 978-1-4597-2931-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4597-2933-9 (EPUB), ISBN 978-1-4597-2932-2 (pdf).

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Charlotte Duggan.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



"Cam, I'm so glad you're getting into Lao culture," Julia said why my visits to Fa Ngum Massage grew more frequent. But Somchai figured it out pretty quickly.

"Meet a beautiful
poosao?" he asked one evening when I got back from the massage house. I just grinned and passed the basketball harder.

I could tell Nana was trying to hide a smile each time I requested Nok to be my masseuse, but I noticed how Nok's body would stiffen when Nana led me to her. Was that a good sign? I didn't think so.

We began to talk about a lot of things after each massage. I asked about her parents and she said they went to political retraining camp. She said it was like a school where the government sends people to learn about communism.

The Merit Birds is Kelley Powell's first novel. Drawing on her own experience, Powell has set the story of 18-year-old Cameron in the exotic world of Vientiane, Laos. Her deep, almost native knowledge of Lao culture (Powell states in a "Dear Reader" note that she lived and worked in Laos) makes for a very authentic setting and genuine local characters.

      The main character is 18-year-old, Ottawa born, Cam, who has been "dragged" to Laos by Julia, his hippy mother, for her work in a non profit organization. While Julia dives right into their new lives, quickly befriending the locals and adopting their customs, Cam is slow to open up to this strange, foreign world. He has brought a lot of emotional baggage with him – mostly anger at his absentee father and what he perceives to be his inadequate mother.

      Powell provides a nice balance of perspective in this "fish out of water" story by interspersing Cam's chapters with chapters about two teenaged Laotians: Seng and his sister Nok. These two also have many problems. Despite their youth, they are on their own. Their parents were sent to a re education camp years ago, and their older sister moved to the U.S. with her American husband. Powell purposefully contrasts the disparity of the situations of these three young people for dramatic effect. While Cam is unable to control his anger "even after years of counselling", Seng and Nok must cope with just day to day survival.

      The clash of cultures theme takes shape when Cam and Nok fall in love. Their relationship softens Cam's anger. But just as he begins along the path to self understanding, tragedy strikes. One night following a party, Nok is killed in a motorcycle accident. Her brother Seng is responsible, but he flees the country, and Cam is arrested and imprisoned.

      At this point, the story diverges in two directions and becomes confusing. Seng is hiding out in Thailand with his older sister from America who has come to help, although she has little to offer in terms of either money or solutions. Then Seng recognizes his mother on the street, but she has Alzheimer's and doesn't recognize Seng.

      Back in Laos, Powell paints a grim picture of Cam's life inside a Laotian prison. Malnourished, sleep deprived, and terrified of the constant threat of torture, his suffering is quite upsetting. But Powell's instincts are good. She understands that her self centred, flawed protagonist must be brought to his knees before he is able to face his inner demons and become whole. Cam's cellmate is a Thai monk whose wisdom and compassion support and guide him to self understanding just in time for Cam to be freed from prison.

      The novel ends with a somewhat confusing epilogue. Now Seng is in prison, and, as his Alzheimer's ridden mother brings him rice rolls every day, he imagines that she knows who he is.

      Cam is a good, if unreliable, narrator. Some readers may enjoy unpacking his personality quirks and trying to figure him out. However, the supporting cast, Julia, Nok and Cam's best friend, Somchai, are either not fleshed out enough for readers to connect or care about them, or are inconsistent and, therefore, confusing. For example, Cam tells readers that Somchai's English is weak, but then shortly afterwards readers witness Somchai making everyone laugh with a very witty pun.

      Powell's writing style is also a little rough around the edges, and her target teenaged audience is unlikely to have the patience required to see this novel to the end. So, despite a very well-developed setting and an interesting, exciting plot, it seems that Powell's editor needed to spend a bit more time helping Powell connect the dots.


Charlotte Duggan is a teacher librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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