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.
I received a digital from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
The main reason why I requested this egalley from Netgalley (Hey! That rhymed!) was because of the different culture portrayed. Many of the YA books today are either based in the current US/UK or the dystopian US/UK. (If you know any book, that isn’t, TELL ME!).
“They lived by the saying boh penyang – ‘no worries.’ They saved their energy for telling jokes and helping out friends or family. It seemed kind of simple, yet profound at the same time. Weird how a poor country like Laos can be so rich.”
This story is about Cam, a teenage boy, whose mother uprooted him in his senior year, to move halfway across the world to Lao. Cam is a bitter and angry youth who harbors some intense resentment towards his mother, believing her to be too flirty and flighty. Indeed, Cam is often left to his own devices and this irritates him all the more. He befriends his neighbor, Somchai; a bond of friendship that withstood everything.
While Cam is adjusting to the life in Lao, a life that he believes he hates, he runs into Nok, a beautiful 16 year old girl who works as a masseuse (No, not that kind of masseuse!). She is an intelligent girl, who had to stop her schooling to work and support her older brother, Seng. Their parents were taken by the government three years past to be reeducated in Communism (One major reason why I hate Communism is the fact there is no free choice!).
“He remembered how Death had settled so softly onto her body, like the relaxation of a deep breath. He had killed her. It was the only thing he knew for certain.”
The blurb says “tragedy strikes” And boy does it strike! What happens is heartbreaking and absolutely back breaking. What happens leads to Cam landing in Jail, in conditions that are too gruesome for even seasoned criminals to handle. Here, Cam meets a Thai monk, Sai, forging a close bond with him. This bond teaches Cam powerful lessons in life. It is here he understands the different ways of meditation, a way of letting go of all his anger.
“Karma isn’t about punishment; it’s about learning all you can in this life so you don’t repeat the same mistakes in your next.”
It was amazing to see the journey Cam took to grow in this book! The author did an amazing job of painting a picture of a culture that most readers would find so different from their own. Not me, because I come from a culture that is quite similar to the Laos. In fact, there were times, that I actually could picture the exact same instances or even situations in respect to my culture. And this is where the book struck a chord with me.
The author perfectly shows that while Lao maybe on the opposite end of the world, it is after all inhabited by the same kind of human beings that you encounter every day – from good to bad to sad to desperate to angry to ambitious, you see that they are similar, if not in names, then in behavior.
“Back home I would have been creeped out about sleeping closely to so many guys, but you don’t think about that kind of stuff when you’re just trying to survive. Besides, Lao guys never think about it. They walk down the street with one arm draped around their guy friend and no one thinks twice. In Canada we’re so free, but at the same time we’re not.”
The best thing about this book – the perfect arc of going from hating something to loving it. In this case, Cam’s absolute abhor-ration and derision of everything that is Lao to coming to view it as home. Now you would say, that should be the normal progression of any book, but frankly it’s the journey that makes it so different. And this journey is what made it all worth it.
Though I do have a couple of issues – well not even issues, juts a simple observations of things that stuck a little wrong in my head (Yes my head is different entity to my body. Get used to it! :P).
There were times, when I did feel as if the plot was dragging itself – minor parts, but enough to make me notice it. But though the author does makes up for it in spades, when everything comes to head! It becomes a riveting read that keeps you on the edge. And yes, while Cam did grow a lot during the course of the book, there were times when he regressed back to the same impulsive and angry boy he was at the start of the book – and this despite the fact that he understood, he consciously knew that the decision he was making, the step he was taking were wrong. But he still did them anyways – forgetting everything he had learned.
The ending is absolute perfection – a perfect rendition to karma. And it’s bittersweet in it’s understanding, and that’s where Ms. Powell just wins the match, by catching a sneaky Snitch 😉
It is a coming of age story with a twist that leaves you heartbroken yet with an understanding that it is easy to be happy and content, if you only let yourself be.
4.5 / 5 Stars
This is a book that I would recommend to every single one of you, regardless of whichever genre you usually prefer. Not just because this book is beautifully written, but because it shows you a different world, a world that stays with you long after you are done with the book.