The Merit Birds
Author: Kelley Powell
Release Date: May 26, 2015
Eighteen-year-old Cam Scott is angry. He’s angry about his absent dad, he’s angry about being angry, and he’s angry that he has had to give up his Ottawa basketball team to follow his mom to her new job in Vientiane, Laos. However, Cam’s anger begins to melt under the Southeast Asian sun as he finds friendship with his neighbour, Somchai, and gradually falls in love with Nok, who teaches him about building merit, or karma, by doing good deeds, such as purchasing caged “merit birds.” Tragedy strikes and Cam finds himself falsely accused of a crime. His freedom depends on a person he’s never met. A person who knows that the only way to restore his merit is to confess. “The Merit Birds” blends action and suspense and humour in a far-off land where things seem so different, yet deep down are so much the same.
I received this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
This book was not what I expected at all.
That can either mean it was better, worse, or in this case, it just stunned me.
The book starts when Cameron (Cam) moves to Laos from Ottawa, Canada because as he likes to say, his mother is at having her midlife crisis. Cam is very flawed, and is even sometimes hard to like. He gets angry easily. He gets aggressive when angry. And he’s very bad in holding in his temper. Cam is a senior and goes to an international school in Laos. He hates it there. He hates the heat, the way his mother, Julia, doesn’t care about him, the way he’s separated from his friends back in Canada.
The author does an amazing job in showing readers the cultures and traditions of Laos. Ah man, the way she describes Laos is absolutely delightful. The sticky rice the characters eat, the bustling marketplace, the gruesome conditions of the jail. Powell doesn’t miss a thing! When Cam is exposed to the Buddhism around the area, we see the temples and monks and I can just imagine myself there. Reading these descriptions really reminded me of the trips I made to the rural mountain areas in China a few years back. The toilets in Laos are quite unique, though.
I absolutely love how Cam is affected by his environment. In the beginning of the story, he abhors the new place he moved to but towards the end he begins to see it as home. Now, I know this has been done many times and of course once you get used to something you see it as home, but the path Cam takes to get there is just a lot to take in. Cam’s neighbor, Somchai, is a native that can speak English and is pretty much always there for him. Somchai teaches Cam so much about friendship and how meaningful it is in Laos. Cam realizes that although these people have so much less than he did, their hearts are so much bigger and they’re so happy.
“They lived by the saying boh penyang – ‘no worries.’ They saved their energy for telling jokes and helping out friends or family. It seemed kind of simple, yet profound at the same time. Weird how a poor country like Laos can be so rich.”
At the same time, Cam is courting a native Lao girl named Nok. Nok is an intelligent, resourceful girl who’s supporting her brother Seng and herself. Their parents were taken by the government to be reeducated in communism (sounds so scary!) and they’ve been gone for three years. So here we have a sixteen-year-old girl who’s taking care of a brother who’s a couple years older than her. However, Cam finds solace in Nok’s company and starts to develop feelings for her.
When the blurb says “tragedy strikes,” tragedy strikes hard.
Cam finds himself in jail, and in the gruesome conditions manages to find a friend: Sai, a Thai monk who teaches Cam a way of meditating and letting out his anger. Throughout the meager days in the prison, they forge a close bond that further teaches Cam powerful lessons in his life.
“Back home I would have been creeped out about sleeping closely to so many guys, but you don’t think about that kind of stuff when you’re just trying to survive. Besides, Lao guys never think about it. They walk down the street with one arm draped around their guy friend and no one thinks twice. In Canada we’re so free, but at the same time we’re not.”
From Somchai, Cam learns the power of friendship. From Nok, Cam experiences the beginnings of adolescent love. From Sai, Cam recevies the power of controlling his own emotions.
This coming of age novel has Cam’s character develop a lot. The only complaint I have about this is that I think he could’ve developed even more. Every time Cam lets his temper get ahold of him, he knows he’s wrong but doesn’t stop. Even after his lessons and everything he learns, we still see him behaving the same way in the end as he did near the beginning. Granted, he realizes the mistake of his actions very quickly, but I think it could have been avoided if Cam used the lessons he learned from his past.
The ending gives readers a sense of satisfaction – karma at its finest. When everything seems to be at the point where nothing can help, an unexpected savior steps in to make things as right as they can be.
The Merit Birds paints a realistic picture of Laos that blends in culture and native settings using an amalgam of colors that will reverberate in your head throughout the rest of the day. It is a coming of age story, but will also expose you to a lacking world filled with happy people.
Quotes are from an ARC copy and are subject to change upon publication.