Book review: First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Having a cold has postponed my triathlon preparation (more on that later) but enabled me to read some of the books hanging around my house.

I read the first ~90 pages of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father on my 2014 trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. I was not gripped enough by the book’s beginning to finish it there and then even though I was in the region the book was set in.

The day I picked up the book a second time was the day I finished its remaining ~150 pages. This time I found the story extremely gripping.

First They Killed My Father (A Daughter Of Cambodia Remembers) is Loung Ung’s memoir from growing up in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s, to surviving the Khmer Rouge, to her escape to a new life as a refugee.

Written in the present tense, most of the book is set during the Khmer Rouge years when a very young Loung and her family, along with millions of other Cambodians, suffered horrifically. I found the number of horrendous experiences suffered by Loung’s family incredible.

I was very impressed by the detail recalled in the book. When key moments were unknown (for example, what happened to Loung’s father after leaving the camp) Loung hypothesises what may have occurred. I found this helped with the book’s flow and structure. Even though many of the true and hypothesised stories were unimaginably brutal, they aligned with the stories and evidence observed in my two visits to Cambodia.

I was amazed at how Loung, her siblings and other family members were able to reunite multiple times without modern communication methods. I expect the ‘informal telegraph’ was far stronger in those days.

I am also amazed at the courage displayed by Loung to open up and write this fantastic book. I highly recommend First They Killed My Father.

If every Australian read this book I am sure the country would have a more humane attitude towards refugees.