This might be what novelist, theoretical physicist and MIT professor Alan Lightman had in mind in his new novel, “Three Flames.” Dedicated to the “strong and courageous young women of the Harpswell Foundation,” the novel tells the story of one struggling Cambodian family finding its way after a brutal civil war that tore the country apart, with millions slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. Lightman formed Harpswell about 10 years ago when he learned that many young Cambodian women attending college in Phnom Penh had no safe place to sleep, while male students could sleep inside temples or rent apartments.
The point of the novel is not, thankfully, a direct call for dormitories. “Three Flames” follows one family: mother, father, son and three daughters. The “Three Flames” of the title refers to three Cambodian rules for women, which, according to daughter Nita are: “Never take family problems outside the house. Never forget what you and Father have done for me. Always serve my husband and be respectful of him.”
The novel looks at how women fare under such patriarchal regulations, but it also examines more generally the pain wrought by the civil war through chapters that alternate perspectives. As it turns out, in a country that has suffered so much, the women suffer the most.
The book’s narrative flow can be confounding at times. Ryna, the mother, appears to us in 2012, but she flashes back to earlier days. The successive chapters begin in different years: 2009, 2013, 1973, 2015. In those moments, we are given details about other family members in fits and starts. I was tempted to write down a family tree with small descriptions, the way one would with a sprawling Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy work.
Oldest daughter Nita’s story begins in 2009. She loves school but is married off to a comparatively rich man with a home in a distant town. Nita escapes, pregnant with their child, after her husband brings home another woman, beats Nita and leaves her for dead.
We meet son Kamal in 2013, followed by daughter Thida in 2008, father Pich in 1973, and daughter Sreypov in 2015. I suppose it’s necessary to start each person’s story where it actually begins, but the effect is confusing, forcing the reader to flip back and wonder, “Now, who is Thida again?”
The family members are illustrations of Cambodian heartbreak rather than full-fledged characters. For instance, Ryna seeks vengeance, many years later, against the Khmer Rouge man she believes killed her father. But her revenge — to force him to sew cloth diapers, which would be considered women’s work — feels contrived.
Kamal, the only son, fantasizes about marrying a beautiful girl from the village who had gone off to Phnom Penh and was rumored to be either a prostitute or a kept woman. He ignores the rumors, borrows a shirt from a friend, travels a painful, long journey to visit her, but loses his nerve when he gets to the large gates of her home. “Kamal stood in the dark and listened to her voice. He looked again at the marbled house and the Land Rover. And standing there, he realized how foolish he’d been,” notes the omniscient narrator. It’s not such a brutal fate compared with Thida’s, after she heads off to a garment factory to help support the family but is kidnapped into a brothel.
Pich, meanwhile, is a despicable fellow, rejected by his birth family because he stabbed his brother’s one good eye. He steals bikes for a living and ends up marrying Ryna but isn’t much of a husband or family man. He drinks rice wine, has a girlfriend on the side and seems to live a totally degraded and despondent life. As he is dying, his girlfriend appears at his home, and we get a tiny, fleeting glimpse of his ability to love.
The final chapter is reserved for Sreypov, the youngest daughter, who loves learning and writing and buries her journal in the ground so that no one can find it. Finally, Sreypov offers hope. She wants to go to university and write poetry. Not to sound too cynical, but . . . really? “You are the fire in this family,” Sreypov’s mother tells her, defying Pich’s orders to have the girl married off. In other words, here’s a flame, too.
In the last lines of the book, Sreypov has a moment of reflection, and imagines standing outside her family’s home and looking at the stars. “They were so quiet. They saw everything that was going on down here. But they always remained the same.”
Debra Bruno is the author, with Bob Davis, of “Beijing From A to Z: An Expat Couple’s Adventures in China.”
By Alan Lightman
Counterpoint. 208 pp. $25