In his first novel in six years, astrophysicist turned essayist and best-selling novelist Alan Lightman, has directed his literary attention away from science and the heavens toward a place quite unexpected. Three Flames is an intimate portrait of three generations of a Cambodian rural family.
Pich, Ryna and their four children, face the regular hardships of farmers—years of poor harvest, meagre income, necessity—within a patriarchal society which enables Pich to impose his devastating decisions on his daughters. Lightman structures the book around their respective journeys and experiences: a chapter is dedicated to each family member and the pivotal moments in their lives, at various times between 1973 and 2015.
Three Flames opens with Ryna’s story, the mother, as she is faced with a ghost from a difficult past. She confides to one of her daughters, that love does not make the solidity of a marriage. Three flames do. The daughter recites the “three flames”, three promises, back to her worried mother. She is about to leave her home to join her husband’s village far away. She knows what is expected of her.
Duty is a burden as Ryna and Pich’s children manifest aspirations of their own. Sacrifices are demanded, and made. In a moment of respite, the youngest daughter stargazes alone outside, a reference, no doubt, to Lightman’s own passion for the heavens. For the girls in particular, choices appear limited.
Yet the bond between Ryna and her daughters is moving and deeply relatable. She wants for them what she couldn’t have for herself; when she eventually reaches a breaking point, it —in a moment of intergenerational conflict, love, forgiveness and emancipation—opens a window of unexpected freedom for one of her daughters.
It bears remarking that Lightman—the author of Einstein’s Dreams—is a white male here writing about Cambodian women. Pulling off a convincing story set in rural Cambodia is no mean feat, and in what seems a humble honoring of Khmer culture and traditions, the book pays notable attention to detail. He recalls that he had waited over ten years to write the novel and acknowledges several Cambodian peers for their help in ensuring cultural accuracy in the novel, perhaps overly so for the Khmer language inserts can feel somewhat heavy-handed in the first half of the book.
The characters are flawed and complex: multidimensional and sensitive personalities. His nuanced writing of the female protagonists is particularly welcome as a departure from traditional literary clichés of voiceless Asian women relegated to secondary or invisible spaces. These women experience anger, a desire for revenge, a willingness to fight injustice even if they are not always equipped to openly challenge the conservative status quo. Lightman has founded, and for almost 15 years, chaired a Cambodia-based women’s leadership charity, whence come, undoubtedly, the book’s feminist themes and emphasis on girls’ education and female agency, as does his anchoring the story in contemporary issues which qualify as social taboos in Cambodia: domestic violence, sexual abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, homosexuality, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Despite the advocacy, the reader is also immersed in animated daily rural life with its seasons, timeless superstitions and gossip. We see the mist setting over the paddy fields shortly after dawn. We follow the reliance on animals, the hungry days, the ceremonies and festivals—Pchum Ben, Khmer New Year, weddings, cremations:
It was April when Nita moved in, the hottest month of the year. Strange things happened in April. Nobody slept well. Ghosts could be heard tiptoeing about in search of water to quench their thirst. Cows broke from their tethers and went wandering through the village. Chickens magically escaped from their coops and congregated in the pagoda.
Against this backdrop, Three Flames is the story of an evolving Cambodia, as villages interact with modernity and a new generation dreams of choices and self-affirmation different than their parents’. “The world is big,” the youngest daughter, Sreypov, bravely says, “I want to see it.”