Going into reading The Rent Collector, I expected a very different story, but I was delighted by the end and yearned for more time with the characters. Set in the Stung Meanchey dump in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, The Rent Collector follows Sang Li, a young mother, and her husband Ki Lim as they battle each day to survive by digging through the waste to earn money for food and rent. With little more than a shack and a handful of possessions, the couple must work each day to protect their young son, Nisay, who has been ill since birth, and deal with the likes of Sopeap, the vile rent collector who is perpetually drunk, and refuses to show compassion. It is not until a fateful encounter with Sopeap that Sang Li begins to see a different side of the terrible old woman, and that Sang Li comes to understand that Sopeap knows how to read.
Desperate to make a better life for her young son, and determined that literacy will open up a world of opportunities, Sang Li begs the rent collector to teach her to read. Although Sopeap is reluctant at first, the two women begin to cherish their lessons, discussing more than just reading, and over time, the two grow to rely on each other in unexpected ways. Just as Sang Li begins to feel that she is comfortable with the world of literature, Sopeap delivers crushing news, and Sang Li must fight to defend the new world that she has come to know through literacy.
The Rent Collector is a truly beautiful story. It is packed with fables, poems, short stories, and beautiful gems that add to the novel. The story is packed with layered life lessons, and readers come away with a wonderful sense of hope and a realization of the power of literature. The one part that was a bit confusing was that Camron Wright based his novel on a documentary filmed by his son, so while the characters are real people in Cambodia, the story-line is a fictionalized version of true events. Though I was a bit uncomfortable with this at first, I enjoyed the story so much that I came to hope that the fictional events mirror those in the life of the real Sang Li. This is a must read and a great choice for a book club because it has so many great moments for discussion!