Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1975
The Girl Who Said Goodbye is the story of a young Cambodian girl who has just completed her first year of University when there is a sudden take-over of the violent and ruthless Khmer Rouge Army. Her country is turned upside-down, and the young girl is forced to survive in a world that changes overnight. She bravely faces starvation, labor camps, disease and absurd new rules all while being separated from her mother. Memories of her childhood and the love of her family keep her alive in captivity. Will she ever be reunited with her loved ones?
The episodic storytelling allows the reader to slowly absorb the horror of Siv Eng’s experiences. Grim scenes of violence are balanced with memories both sweet and sad, and the importance of family life is emphasized. Siv Eng’s story isn't sugar-coated, but she gives the reader a thread of hope even in the direst of situations. This is also a story about faith, as Siv Eng sees various signs and dreams that eventually lead her to Christianity.
Siv Eng pointedly mentions a lack of interest in politics, but this is a story of ideology vs. humanity. If it weren't for the kindness of certain chiefs, guards, and soldiers, Siv Eng would be dead. Her will to live and see her family again are inspirational. Allen has a remarkable ability to distill Siv Eng's stories into a smooth, if harrowing, reading experience, and readers will find it impossible to look away.
Takeaway: This harrowing, gripping story of survival in the face of horrific events will equally appeal to students of Cambodian history and fans of poignant memoirs.
Great for fans of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields.
Design and typography: TK
Marketing copy: TK
The Girl Who Said Goodbye: A Memoir of a Khmer Rouge Survivor
Heather Allen, 337 pages, (paperback) $19.99, 9781643399553 (Reviewed: August 2019)
Heather Allen brings to life the voice of a young, determined, and remarkable Cambodian girl—the author’s aunt— in this gripping true story of horror and survival under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979).
In a violent military coup, Siv Eng, daughter of middle-class, prosperous, educated parents, and her siblings are abruptly swept up in the communist takeover, interrupting her university career. Forced to evacuate Phnom Penh in a march to remote jungle village labor camps, the siblings have no idea of the whereabouts of the rest of the family.
Through vignettes, flashbacks, and simple description, as told through Siv Eng’s eyes, Allen creates a vivid portrait of a sophisticated culture plunged into a world of abuse and genocide—while bringing to light the flawed philosophy of the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian utopia.
Mass executions along with years of forced labor, starvation, and disease spark Siv Eng’s formidable resolve to survive and reunite with her family. She learns to steal and barter for grains of rice and favors from village leaders through hat-making or sewing.
Fleeing to a village where she believes she will find her sister, who was sent away after stealing mung beans, Siv Eng is caught and imprisoned. There, she witnesses multiple horrors, including suffocation punishments for stealing infractions: “...the Khmer Rouge placed a plastic bag over the victim’s head and kept it there until the person was asphyxiated. Before death, the bag was briefly removed, and the process was started over again.” Of her captors, she remarks: “Instead of planting seeds in the ground to feed the masses, the Khmer Rouge planted corpses.”
In the harrowing aftermath, Siv Eng is eventually swallowed up in a river of Cambodian refugees desperately seeking to be reunited with their lost families.
Here is a story that must be told. With uncomplicated prose in which little is sugarcoated, Allen delivers an exceptional, arresting work. Students of holocaust studies, Asian history, and Marxism will find it an invaluable account.
BlueInk Heads-Up: This book is equally as suited for middle school and high school readers as it is for book clubs or as part of a college curriculum.
Also available as an ebook.
"THE GIRL WHO SAID GOODBYE is an important human story told with a wealth of compassion. The work offers a seminar in Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge, as well as a harrowing account of resilience. Eng carefully describes the hierarchy of the new Khmer Rouge society, educating the uniformed and reminding the knowledgeable. She notes that the often brutal Mulethan—village farmers who lived in the countryside prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover and put in charge of the “new” people” (“city people” such as Siv Eng)—were also sometimes compassionate. Sing states, “A handful of the Mulethan committed acts of covert compassion. They sympathized with our situation and saw us as people with families. They recognized that the Angkar ideology was a disease that was eradicating our people, our country, and our land” (pg 79). Sociopolitical and historical elements are woven into this deeply personal story. The memoir telescopes between being on the ground with the narrator and zooming out to the larger Khmer Rouge occupation.
Cambodian cultural elements are also intertwined in the chronicle, which creates a third dimension in this complex, multifaceted plot. For example, when in a work camp the narrator recalls a horrifying experience of waking, in the middle of the night, to “something pushing on [her] chest…[she] saw the shape of a hand in the light from the fire. It was attached to an enormous, hairy arm” (pg 99). Eng had been asked by a friend to sleep in the space because the friend, too, had had a similar experience. Eng recounts the startling incident, placing it into the greater social context: “Superstitions and ghosts were very real in Cambodian culture…I never slept up in the bed again, and the woman never asked. She faced her tormentor alone” (pg 200). The short chapter ends here, and the reader is left with the triple meaning of the event: the literal experience, the backdrop of Cambodian superstition, and the notion of constant torment coming from the entirety of the Khmer Rouge dystopia.
Succinct chapters that interweave personal anecdotes, Cambodian cultural history, and the indoctrination of the Khmer Rouge all serve to create a page-turning memoir of emotional and historical breadth–and ultimately, compassion and forgiveness–in Heather Allen’s memoir, THE GIRL WHO SAID GOODBYE."
~Geoff Watkinson for IndieReader
Featured in 15 June 2019 Kirkus Reviews Magazine VOL. LXXXVII, NO.12
"An account of murder, starvation, bravery, and faith under Cambodia’s dreaded Khmer Rouge regime.""In 1974, Siv Eng, a Cambodian teenager from the rural town of Battambang, was full of hope for a promising future when she joined her younger sister, Sourn Leng, in a Phnom Penh apartment. There, they planned to live as they pursued pharmacy studies at the University of Health Science. They joined their older brother, Pho—a freshly minted electrical engineer—and his young wife, Sok Yann, as well as their aunt Chhiv Hong and other family members. But their lives were about to turn nightmarish, as the Khmer Rouge were about to take over the country. In this debut biography, Allen relates, in Siv Eng’s voice, the gripping story of her aunt’s struggle to survive seemingly unrelenting terror. In the 1970s, Allen notes, the Khmer Rouge enslaved the entire country’s population, eliminated education, money, the judicial system, private property, as well as any type of happiness, including singing, that the regime considered a sign of capitalist decadence. Throughout this book, the author employs a matter-of-fact, almost flat prose style that contrasts well with the horror of the narrative that she relates in her aunt’s voice. Along the way, Allen effectively reveals the privation and misery created by the Cambodian communists as Siv Eng survived in her country’s wasteland; she found hope in only two things—her love of her family members and her quiet, lasting sense of prayer: “We were so hungry,” Siv Eng narrates, “The suffering was unbearable. Instead of using the rice to feed the hungry mouths, the Angkar [Khmer Rouge] was feeding bullets to guns.” The story’s chronology isn’t straightforward, but flashbacks offer a contrast between Siv Eng’s earlier days and her later ordeal.A harrowing tale of survival and escape." -Kirkus Reviews