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John Burgess's 'A Woman of Angkor' sheds light on a little-known era

Burgess's book recreates what life would have been like for ordinary Cambodians during the golden age of Khmer civilization.

By Dan Southerland / January 31, 2014

'A Woman of Angkor' is by John Burgess.

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In his very first novel, John Burgess has pulled off something I would have considered impossible.

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He’s given us a compelling picture of what life must have been like in 12th-century Angkor, the capital of a centuries-old kingdom that finally vanished. The reasons for Angkor’s collapse have remained a mystery until this day.

Burgess tells the story through the voice of a Khmer market woman named Sray, who rises to prominence because of her skills and her husband’s connections to the royal palace.

I should mention early on that John Burgess is a friend. I met him in the 1970s when I was covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for The Christian Science Monitor. John was based in Bangkok at the time. John and I both worked for The Washington Post in the 1980s.

I’ve been to Cambodia many times. I’ve visited the great temple of Angkor Wat perhaps six times since the mid-1960s and I’ve read a good deal about Angkor.

But no book that I know of comes close to telling what life must have been like for ordinary Cambodians during what has been called the golden age of Khmer civilization.

From village to palace

Burgess’s heroine, Sray, quickly takes us from the gentle pace of life in a village on the outskirts of Angkor to the intimidating atmosphere inside the city’s royal palace, where Sray’s husband Nol becomes parasol master to a prince.

Sray finds herself in a palace riven by human failings and torn by rivalries. Brahmin priests, offering spiritual guidance, try desperately to keep the situation under control.

The kingdom is not at peace. The Siamese to the west and the Cham to the east challenge its control over a vast territory. And through Burgess’s skillful storytelling, we witness battles with the Siamese and an encounter with the Cham that could easily go wrong.

The cast includes an elderly king obsessed with orchids, an ambitious young new king, a usurper prince, an architect, a young builder of temples, a Chinese merchant, a kindly sergeant, a scheming concubine, and even a holy elephant.

The story of the gentle elephant Kumari, whom many people believe has spiritual powers and can tell fortunes, is touching in itself.

Through the voices of the builders of Angkor Wat, the author provides a plausible explanation for why the Hindu temple, the largest religious structure in the world, defies tradition and faces west.

The author also creates such believable scenes of love, war, ambition, and rivalry that you can clearly visualize what’s happening. The book is cinematic enough to make a movie.

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