BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna, translated by Helge Dascher [in Booklist]

The U.S.’s April, 1975, withdrawal from Vietnam enabled the so-called Vietnam War to spread into Laos and Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime stormed Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants – mostly to brutal labor camps – eliminating 1.7 to 2 million Cambodians. Tian Veasna was born into that hell, miraculously escaping to France in 1980 with his parents.

His extended family tree appears in the opening pages and is duplicated at the end with chilling modifications: 9 of the 21 faces are greyed out to denote the dead. In between, bolstered by years of interviews with remaining family, Veasna reveals starvation, betrayal, torture, imprisonment, and death. Unexpected kindness and uncanny coincidences help keep (some of) the family alive.

On the back of every chapter’s frontispiece, Veasna embeds single-page capsules of survival, from annotated maps to pithy advice (“To avoid trouble with the Khmer Rouge, avoid carrying the following …”, including eyeglasses!) to surprising humor (“Khim’s tips and tricks,” featuring coal for teeth-brushing, accompanied by a comical commentator, “I’m not sure it works, but everybody does it”).

First published in France, Veasna’s debut is notably graphic – yes, because he’s a visual artist but also because words alone couldn’t capture the magnitude of this (in)human tragic history. Prodigious Francophone translator Helge Dascher enables English-language reading; award-winning filmmaker Rithy Panh provides introductory context.

Review: “Books for Youth,” Booklist, March 15, 2020

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2020


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