The Last Gods of Indochine
In the 19th century, French explorer and naturalist Henri Mohout brought attention to the Western world of Angkor Wat, the temple ruins in Cambodia. The start of this novel features him as far as his death from malaria, although his role throughout the rest of the book is via his granddaughter, Jacquie, who had an interest in exploration and travel as well. Inspired by his journals, she sets out to follow his footsteps to Indochine in 1921. Along the way, she begins to keep a journal, though her writing more involves her dreams. These dreams, which follow her through her travels, primarily involve Paaku, a young man living towards the end of the 13th century who may very well be the incarnation of a god.
Samuel Ferrer allows the reader as much time with Paaku and his life during the Khmer Empire as he does with Jacquie in the 1920s. Both are very rich characters with experiences that drive their motivations and make them well-rounded and believable. While Henri Mohout was a real and living person, the character of his granddaughter, Jacquie, is fully fictional, though it does not read that way at all. She works with L’École Française d’Extrême Orient with real people from history, and it is hard at times to remember that she was fabricated for the purpose of this book.
Upon arrival in Indochine, Jacquie realizes that she and Paaku are connected in ways she could never have imagined; their stories unfold before the reader in an enjoyable, enthralling, and fascinating way. Not only was I entertained throughout the reading, I learned quite a bit about the Khmer Empire, Hinduism and Buddhism, mythology, and Cambodian history. This is an impressive first novel, and Ferrer is the first non-Asian to be nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Highly recommended.