Acclaimed author Alan Lightman is the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, an organization that works to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. His time spent in Cambodia is apparent through the beautiful and unforced descriptions in Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years.
The titular Three Flames is a code of ethics that binds a struggling Cambodian farming family together. This code is not conducive to growth or improvement, as each member wrestles to uphold these values amid the strife of living in an oppressive and violently patriarchal environment. As time passes, it is not the upholding of the Three Flames but rather a conscious unraveling that brings the family closer.
Each nonlinear chapter spotlights a different family member and adds depth to their collective story. Ryna, the mother, had her life upended after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime murdered her father. When she sees the man who killed her father 33 years before, she plans to exact revenge. Pich, the authoritative father, has known nothing but poverty his entire life. Exiled by his family as a teenager, he has never known a loving and forgiving home. As he controls his family, he receives disdain in return. Pich sends his 16-year-old daughter, Nita, to marry a rubber merchant, and she is forced to leave home against her will. Kamal, the only son, is disillusioned by the prospect of following his father’s career and sets his sights on a free-thinking woman. Pich pulls Thida, his oldest daughter, out of school to work in a garment factory to send money back home. Sreypov, the youngest daughter, is unique. She is a thinker, a poet. Preserving her education becomes the goal of Ryna and Thida, and the women finally stand up to Pich.
Lightman illustrates generational family trauma in a way that is succinct (at a slim 208 pages, Three Flames can be read in the better part of a day) yet leaves just the right amount of speculation to the reader. Three Flames is moving and beautifully written—an unforgettable embodiment of the resilience of the human spirit.