Book Title: The Merit Birds (Standalone)
Author: Kelley Powell
Number of pages: 240
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.
(re: Goodreads @ The Merit Birds – Kelley Powell)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
— A culturally immersive adventure through Laos; from vibrant communities to dingy living environments; akin to like an all-expense paid trip
— A coming-of-age following three perspectives written in first-and-third person; the intermingling of narrative voices in a short book does dilute character growth
— Long stretches of plotting where nothing really happens. However, this where the resilience of the story shines best—in the little moments of discovery, survival and hope
— Romance errs toward instalust with an undertone of exoticism
— Shortcomings in writing that can suspend genuine poignancy and realism
— Rating: 3.25/5
In truth, I thought this was going to be a lot more CanLit-y than what was portrayed but that’s okay, the merits of alternative diversity made up for the otherwise lacking Canadian side to cultural exploration. I’d also like to give congrats as this is a debut novel for Ms. Powell.
Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of The Merit Birds though NetGalley for an honest review. I extend my thanks to Dundurn for providing me the opportunity to review this book.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
The Merit Birds is a tale of one life seen through many lives; a coming of age that displaces privilege with suffocation, friendships with relationships, and exposes the invisible divide in colonized lifestyles. It follows Cameron Scott as he finds himself removed from his Canadian home and plopped into the dank, unfamiliar, and culturally dissonant landscape of Laos. His journey juxtaposes between two siblings: Nok and Seng, both of whom find their impoverished lives intertwining with the exoticism of foreign blood. It is in stripping away the struggles of discovery, survival, and hope that lays the groundwork toward another step to be experienced.
The majority of this story takes place in-and-around Vientiane over the course of a year and immerses readers to objects of foreign appreciation and native traditions. From street vendors and roads of havoc to claustrophobic living conditions and lush (and grimy) terrain, the narrative truly drives readers on an adventure through Laos. The setting is perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel.
While it is often concerning when authors write about cultural diversity without research that can dip into territories of exoticism and stereotypes, in truth, I didn’t feel sidelined into some propaganda with Powell’s writing. Yes there will be certain attributes that ring true the marginalization of women, the notion of corruption in a third-world country, and the beliefs and practices that are the foundation of it all—but that’s to be expected. What I found The Merit Birds doesn’t do is jump on these tropes for a be all end all type of experience. That’s the thematic crux of The Merit Birds. It remains the backdrop but it doesn’t limit the characters to only be the boxes we know or want them to be; their stories matter.
As a first-time traveler to Laos, I felt the wanton acts of the rich against impoverished Nok; who simply works at a massage parlour to get by. I felt the shimmering American dream Seng wanted to swim in; amplified by his dirty clothes of fake memorabilia. But most importantly: I felt Cam’s angst toward a strange world punctuated by his parents divorce and being thrust into an environment that lacks the privilege so many of us grow into thinking is a fundamental necessity. (Continued in Narration…)
It’s this objective look at equality and culture which makes this read resonate through its three distinct voices: Cam’s first-person perspective, and Seng and Nok’s third-person omniscient. The pacing is a bit of a toss-up. Admittedly, nothing really happens (and when shit hits the fan, it hits the fan hard). It’s one of those situations where your retrospective thoughts on the characterisations define how you’ll see this story (not while it’s happening).
Part of me was hoping that Cam’s heritage had more of a voice in the story as if it was a character (much like how the setting embodied that). Don’t get me wrong—his apprehension to life is felt immediately but anecdotally, I wish there was more of him extending his personal attributions (values and cultures inclusive) to those around him so it breaks down those exoticized walls for natives to view foreigners as more than just that. A journey can be walked alone but this one isn’t. The people Cam crosses paths with matter; you learn from others and others learn from you.
There are also some holes in storytelling that did take me out of the story. For one, it’s unrealistic to me that a family member who essentially abandoned her flesh-and-blood ends up returning to the political and economically corrupt wasteland without some indication early on to say that she’s “okay”. It’s like, “yeah, I’m going to some war-zone–don’t wait up for me” I get that the individual in question didn’t have a voice but this is where showing versus telling comes into play.
Alternatively, Cam was also gifted with so many get-out-of-jail-free cards with Somchai, his neighbour, being the prime suspect of these fortuitous moments. It was as if the entire world revolved around fixing Cam’s mistakes and that felt like a big no-no to me because though friendship is a hallmark of this story, people have other lives to live as well and you can’t just abuse that.
The most wtf element in this story is actually the merit birds themselves. I felt its symbolism pushing people to be better; whether it’s by encouragement or selflessness, the point of which is to build karma. But karma isn’t a balanced thing. You can’t quantify it and say “hey, dude up there, I’m gonna trade you 20 good deeds so I could get another date” It’s not even something that should be represented in this currently life; rather, it’s something you theoretically come into post-reincarnation. The point of “don’t be a jerk and you’ll lead a happier life” is well taken but there isn’t true causation with Cam’s predicament to its resolution. Not only that, it was written as though karma is a common thing people think about and discuss in conversation. I don’t know about you but isn’t the point of karma club not to talk about karma club? (You should get demoted for glorifying your karma.) Overall, I just think the entire basis of karma was rather forced.
Growth and change is a difficult thing to grasp. It’s unrealistic to wake up a changed person; it’s even more difficult to do that in an unfamiliar setting. It is in this reason alone that I might understand Cam’s continuous bitching and hypocrisy. Understandably, Cam is angst-ridden but you would be too if you had to throw your life away and start anew elsewhere. That’s fine. The problem is in the numerous times when Cam trades rage for compassion; where he owns control of the situation in his head but ends up exploding anyways. It’s this single constant that not only causes his self-realized growth to stagnate, but it makes the read less tolerable. Cam understands the wrongdoings of his past but still ends up trailblazing fire with the same lighter as before. He either doesn’t learn or selfishly chooses not to learn until it is too late. This is the core beef I have with his character.
Furthermore, the relationship between Cam/Nok slightly suspends belief. It leans closer towards instalust rather than that of a tangible relationship. It’s funny because the only thing that separated Cam and the foreigner-client who tried to have sexual relationships with Nok is that Cam tried to have a conversation with her before being utterly smitten by Nok. It’s a tad weird when Nok is portrayed (or perhaps fetishize) as a pure, intelligent girl who can’t seem to catch a break but so many of her actions go against the safety net of her character. Seng, on the other hand, is perhaps the character that I felt grew the most. It’s a weird predicament. This story would seem wholly Cam’s—but it isn’t—their fates are shared. I guess you could say that their screen-times detract from each other’s growth.
The integrity of Kelley Powell’s The Merit Birds weaves optimism and bleak-as-shit narratives—all within the same moment of time—to promote the institution of culture through a multi-arced story. It’s a progressive read coming in at 240-pages that shines brightest when nothing is happening; and is a story that blasts readers with diversity and culture and should be experienced by Westerners. See, it isn’t that the resolution isn’t something to relish in, it’s that the journey far outweighs the destination.
I leave you with this:
“Her dignity was invisible to him because of her poverty, because her English wasn’t perfect, because she was a girl, and because of her brown skin. To him, she was just another thing to buy and use. All he knew about was the money in his pocket and the selfishness in his heart.”