Searing and hopeful, ‘Three Flames’ chronicles family’s life

Alan Lightman’s novel “Three Flames” follows the conflicting desires of one Cambodian family as they navigate a changing society.

Courtesy of Black Balloon Publishing
“Three Flames” by Alan Lightman, Counterpoint, 208 pp.

Modernity clashes with traditional culture in this novel about a family of Cambodian farmers. As the outside world imposes upon their remote village, old ways no longer seem tenable – but new steps forward are difficult to imagine. Weaving together six individual stories from one family, Alan Lightman examines freedom and obligation, heartache and forgiveness, and ultimately imparts a sense of hope with “Three Flames.”

The past intrudes upon the present early on when the family’s mother, Ryna, has a chance encounter with an old man visiting her village. Though decades have passed, she recognizes him as the Khmer Rouge soldier who killed her father. The soldier has aged, and as she observes his frailty and loneliness, she realizes that she now holds the power. In reconciling that power with forgiveness, Ryna embodies the quiet strength upon which her family has always depended.

In another story, the father, Pich, arranges for middle daughter Nita to be married to a wealthy businessman, despite her dream of attending university. And when the family’s rice crop fails, he sends eldest daughter Thida off to the city to work in a factory. Although she has no choice but to go, Thida comes to terms with her duties.

The men of the family do not escape the upheaval caused by changing times and expectations. When Pich’s story unfolds, it’s revealed that his harsh behavior is rooted in a mixture of traditional expectations and family tragedies. Kamal, the family’s only son, has no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. Instead, he’s intrigued by the world beyond his village and choices his father never imagined.

But the brightest hope lies with the family’s youngest daughter, Sreypov. As she learns from the past and finds the strength to escape traditional expectations, she retains her individuality and finds her own path.

Sometimes charming and sometimes heartbreaking, Lightman’s novel is an accessible bridge into Cambodian culture for Western readers.

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