Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay

It’s been nearly a week now since I finished Laura Jean McKay’s collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia, and my feelings are a jumble of melancholy, pensiveness and something else that I can’t quite pin down. I still feel like I’ve recently returned from somewhere else – somewhere sweaty, dusty and crowded. Somewhere foreign.

McKay transcribes each moment from each life with a depth of understanding that is apparent and personal, and that doesn’t diminish whether the subject is Cambodian, a fleeting tourist or a long-established expatriate. Fragmented and partial, the pieces here range from the mundane to the serious. Time and chronology shift and remain unspecified – the reader must place themselves by picking up on clues from dress and dialogue. We are thrown headlong into another’s world for a brief and intense moment before being just as abruptly removed and transplanted into the next. Yet despite the variations in backgrounds, personalities and experiences, each character is solid and real, and their stories gripping.

The collection opens with ‘Route Four’. A small Cambodian boy assists three tourists on the train; they are intent on getting to Kampot, and he is intent on relieving them of their luggage. Their journey is languid and slow, until something unexpected changes the tempo of the story with brutal swiftness. ‘If You Say It, It Must Be True’ focuses on the banal give-and-take between an unhappily married couple. Anna and Ray’s constant misunderstanding and inability to communicate was something that really struck me. Their relationship was like a broken zip – the teeth that once matched perfectly will no longer meet, no matter how hard you pull.

Choppy and unpredictable, the effect of this collection is bracing and powerful, and is one that has not left me yet. Highly recommend.

Jo Boyce is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.