In this novel, a young American woman joins the Foreign Service and is sent to Cambodia during Southeast Asia’s turbulent 1960s.
Julia Galbraith, nearly 23, arrives in Phnom Penh in the Mango Rain season (pre-monsoon period) of 1963. It is her first overseas posting. Prince Sihanouk is still in power, playing a delicate balancing act between friendships with America and China, which are involved in the early stages of their battle in war-torn Vietnam. In Cambodia, the Khmer Serei, an anti-Sihanouk rebel group hiding in Thailand, is becoming more threatening. The political machinations in Southeast Asia during this time create an intriguing and increasingly dark backdrop. During Julia’s tenure, a military coup ousts the United States–supported Diem government in Vietnam; President John F. Kennedy is assassinated; and the American position in Cambodia becomes tenuous. But the real drama in the novel rests with the romantic liaisons, ambitions, tragedies, and disappointments of various members of the diplomatic corps and the journalists covering them, beginning with Julia, through whom readers meet the rest of the characters. Her ill-fated love affair with the handsome Charles Hourani, who is attached to the Moroccan Embassy, is just one of the narrative’s challenging relationships that change lives and often end sadly as the story eventually progresses through succeeding decades. Oman, who has some experience in the Foreign Service, offers a captivating insider glimpse of America’s diplomatic mission during a tumultuous time. Vivid images of Cambodia—the colors, aromas, flavors, and street scenes—bring readers directly into the time and place: “Fortunetellers squat on the pavement, and old men hold cages of songbirds. Dentists set up rudimentary shops on the sidewalks, their primitive tools laid out on less-than-pristine towels.” The second half of the richly descriptive and poignant book—with the exception of its first chapter, which concludes Julia’s time in Southeast Asia—consists of an assortment of catch-up vignettes that fill in the ultimate fates of most of the supporting characters. It makes for a rather melancholy finale.
An engaging, disturbing tale of love, loss, and human frailties set against cross-cultural conflicts.