Book Review: When Broken Glass Floats

Book Review: When Broken Glass Floats

Akhil Kumbum, Opinion/Column Editor


When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge is a must-read. It will be difficult. Depressing, even. But not only does it educate its readers about a horrific period of time barely even mentioned in the footnotes of our history books, it’s also incredibly well written. When Broken Glass Floats details the childhood of its author,Chanrithy Him, and the experience of her family during the Cambodian genocide, under the Khmer Rouge. The genocide itself occurred from 1975-1979 (an era known as the “Killing Fields” in Cambodian history) and was the result of a political upheaval after the Cambodian Civil War, which resulted in a dictatorial, communist regime led by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) party. It’s disputed how many people were killed by the regime during this period of time, but it’s generally agreed that at least 2 million people, out of a population of 8 million, were killed by starvation, relocation and execution. Pol Pot’s murderous government targeted a wide variety of people, from ethnic minorities to the educated, all in the hopes of resetting Cambodian society to a mythic, agrarian one, free of foreign influence. While Southeast Asia is a prominent focus of history classes dealing with the 1970s, the Cambodian genocide is often glossed over in favor of the Vietnam War, due to America’s direct involvement.

Him was 10 years old when the revolution occurred. She and her tightly-knit family of 12 were quickly relocated to a labor camp, after being forcefully removed from their home in Phnom Penh. Things change drastically, as the KR quickly seize many of the modern amenities, from electricity, to heating, to clocks and cars. They are put to work, and her father, an educated doctor with French connections, is taken by the government. Chanrithy and her family undergo arduous trials that test, but never break their loyalty to each other, even in the face of illness and starvation. At the end of the day, the book is a story of the importance of family and compassion, and Him is unwaveringly committed to those ideals throughout the course of the novel. As the novel progresses, we see the real strength of the Him family in face of deadly adversity.

The author’s prose cuts like a knife. Honest, unflinching, and brutal, the words that construct the imagery in this novel will stay with the reader for a long time. Fair warning – this book doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Although it might be easily unsettling, and often graphic, this sort of approach is necessary to shed light on the situation. Any sort of delicacy just wouldn’t be appropriate for the situation. When I read this book, I was jolted into the realization that just as we give importance to many in history, we tend to completely forget others. It encouraged me to look further into the subject, and despite the discomfort it caused me while I read it, I’m glad I did.

Overall, When Broken Glass Floats is an important, if hard to read book. It’s a dark pit of a novel, but it serves to remind us of the importance of family and hope. By the time you finish reading it, you’ll be hard-pressed to forget this oft-forgotten portion of human history.