K.T. Medina’s debut novel, White Crocodile, is a harrowing venture into the deadly fields of Cambodia, a Southeast Asian nation of volatile politics, poverty and danger. The author is a former member of the British armed forces, well qualified to describe the conditions in that small country where, in the 1970s, hostile political groups planted thousands of land mines that have victimized the native population to the present day.
After five years of experience in the British Royal Engineers, including three tours of duty clearing mines in Afghanistan, Tess Hardy has joined the humanitarian mine clearance charity MCT in Cambodia’s Battambang Province. Her secret agenda, known only to herself, is to discover what happened to her ex-husband, Luke, who was reported killed while searching out unexploded mines with MCT, but whose body was never recovered. Luke physically abused Tess during their marriage, but drew her back into his orbit during a disturbing phone call to her shortly before his death. Just after Tess arrives in Cambodia, she watches as another of Luke’s colleagues, an experienced mine clearer, is severely injured by a mine. Are these accidents—or murder?
Threading through this unnerving tale is the image of a White Crocodile, carved on doorways and homes and appearing on signposts in the minefields strewn with lethal weapons, fields that the fearsome crocodile appears to stalk on his killing missions. The creature is a symbol of death, connected to an old legend that intimidates the population into near passivity—or violent revenge. The White Crocodile is also blamed for a spate of disappearances and related killings in local villages, always of young single mothers whose deaths leave their small children without home and family. The story clicks at another level as readers learn these events may be related to the murder of a young Cambodian woman, oceans away in England. Tess, in uneasy alliance with Alex, a Croatian mine clearer with violent tendencies of his own, vows to defy the myth of the crocodile’s menace and uncover the mystery behind the disappearances and deaths.
The danger of unexploded mines in the Cambodian fields serves as a frightening symbol of the brutality that victimizes the terrified, closemouthed populace and throws into sharp relief the political agencies sent to aid villagers—groups that often inspire the very forces that victimize.
White Crocodile is an arresting, disturbing and memorable read.
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