Chan Kim has stars in her eyes
At age 35, Chan Kim has experienced about five times more hardship than most people ever will. Though a fictional character, author Ilan Herman brings to life the suffering caused by the Vietnam War through her in his latest novel, appropriately titled Chan Kim. Unlike many authors, though, Herman explores the experiences of the Cambodians under the cruel reign of the Khmer Rouge, the ruling Communist party in Cambodia.
The rest of the novel tracks Chan Kim’s sorrows and life changes. In a spiritual journey to the stars, Kim literally gets “stars in her eyes.” She eventually comes to find out that she has the rare ability to mentally travel the world and give hope and serenity to those suffering. Over the course of ten years, Kim moves to Australia, then to America, and all the while her spiritual change greatly affects her relationships. Various characters who also share her gift (and all appear in the form of flames) coach and sometimes manipulate Chan Kim in their quest to save the world.
Chan Kim covers a lot of ground in 350 hundred pages – death, sexuality, faith. What is striking is just how many characters die; Herman does not shield his readers from the reality of Cambodian genocide. As the story progresses from the war, though, it seems that some of the deaths are just agents for an emotional response (very effective ones!). That being said, everything in the book is interwoven to develop Chan Kim’s character. A particularly compelling quote reads, “Let no one claim that tears are superfluous or wrong, let no one assuage the mind to frown upon the primal need to weep. Reject those who claim that all is bliss.”
Chan Kim is a very adaptable and relatable character. As a reader, it is easy to both mourn and celebrate with her. Though most of us will never have stars in our eyes, human nature is incurably religious, as is Chan Kim. However, traditionally religious readers might find Herman’s all-encompassing views on spirituality overly positive and a little forced.
Caveats aside, Chan Kim is an interesting and compelling read, one that is very mindful of human capacity for cruelty, suffering, and, perhaps most importantly, love.