Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

The Disappeared

by Kim Echlin

“The familiar tale of star-crossed lovers is revisited with gripping immediacy and compelling freshness in Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared. Writing with sensuality, yearning, and in a voice readers will not soon forget, Ms. Echlin reminds us of the potency of our first loves, and of their enduring ability to shape and haunt us.” —Stephanie Kallos

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date January 12, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7066-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

The Disappeared—a best seller in Canada and short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize—is a fiercely beautiful love story for the ages. In this searing and courageous novel, Kim Echlin traces one woman’s three-decades-long journey from the peaceful streets of Montreal to the humid, war-torn villages of Cambodia, as a brief affair turns into a grand passion of loss and remembrance, set against one of the most brutal genocides of the twentieth century.

Anne Greves is sixteen years old when she first meets Serey, a Cambodian student and musician forced by his family to leave his country during the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime. Swept up in the fury and infatuation of first love, Anne rebels against her father’s wishes and embraces her relationship with Serey in the smoky jazz clubs of Montreal and in his cramped yellow bedroom. But then the borders of Cambodia are reopened and Serey must risk his life to return home, alone, in search of his family. A decade later, Anne will travel halfway around the world to find him, and to save their relationship from the same tragic forces that first brought them together.

In prose that is both tender and charged, Kim Echlin challenges our notions of how to both claim the past and move on after insufferable loss. Part elegy, part love letter, part call to arms, The Disappeared is a soaring tribute to all those who have vanished in the violent conflicts throughout our history.

Tags Literary


“Spellbinding . . . There is something of Marguerite Duras in these pages, something of the lust between the young Western girl and the Asian man that drove novels like The Lover and The North China Lover. But while Duras focuses mostly on desire, Echlin focuses on absolute love—physical desire coupled with the need to know everything about the beloved, to follow him even to the grave and beyond. . . . Echlin captures the beauty and horror of Cambodia in equal measure . . . [and] love and death pulsate through [her] pages, interlaced. . . . Exquisite . . . [Echlin] creates alchemy. She permits what has been unsaid to be said, and what has been nameless to be named at last.” —Dalia Sofer, The New York Times Book Review

“Astonishing . . . The sheer beauty of Echlin’s writing—as lyrical as it is honest—keeps us reading through the pain.” —Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe

“[A] poignant love story . . . Lush and poetic . . . The Disappeared is a passionate and emotionally wrenching novel that forces us to remember and provides witness to what was lost.” —Lauren Bufferd, BookPage.com

“The beautifully spare narrative is daringly imaginative in the details. . . . Echlin creates a sorrowfully compelling world . . . [in this] powerful, transcendent love story.” —Publishers Weekly

The Disappeared is a contemplation of horror, and a ferocious look at love. While all the “nameless missing” of the Cambodian genocide gather around the characters like ghosts, the story also thrums with life, love, sensuality, tenderness and brutal pain. Echlin dares a hard look at the best and worst of humanity and pulls off this ambitious feat with elegance and heart.” —Zoé Ferraris, author of Finding Nouf

“This book, which deals forthrightly with man’s inhumanity to man, transcends its difficult subject matter by virtue of Echlin’s brilliant and beautiful prose, which tenderizes everything that it touches. The Disappeared is a unique, powerful, quietly devastating book, and a true and important love story.” —Peter Cameron, author of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

“This is a powerful and affecting novel, one that’s willing to consider the greatest devotion and the most terrible cruelty. At the center of The Disappeared is a truly penetrating and unforgettable understanding of the circumstances of genocide.” —John Dalton, author of Heaven Lake

“Sensual . . . Electrifying . . . [The Disappeared] is a miracle of economy whose short sentences and ellipses often draw on the powerful brevity of short-story technique. . . . The voice is singular and arresting. . . . [Written with] insidious urgency . . . [and] in an aroused but taut and plain prose that attaches the intensities of erotic love to the smell, sight, taste and touch of human suffering . . . Through [her] technical and stylistic virtuosity, allied with elliptical narrative brilliance, Echlin raises Anne’s climactic ritual action to a level of tragic sublimity.” —Stevie Davies, The Guardian (UK)

“Finely chiseled prose . . . Undeniably beautiful . . . [With] moments of genuine tension and power.” —Tash Aw, Telegraph (UK)

“A dance of words . . . [full of] beauty, grace, sensuality and power. . . . In what is a seemingly impossible feat, the form is carved perfectly to the task—the book balances on the beauty. . . . Echlin is able, by imagination and art, to take the reader on a journey through eros and evil—a journey that travels into utter darkness but does not leave us in despair. . . . Echlin has wrought a work of singular beauty, a work which turns ‘human cruelty’ into the image of a particle of dust by a lover’s cheek, into the rhythm of the sentences that carry knowledge of the world so all may witness.” —Mary Jo Anderson, The Chronicle Herald (Canada)

“Like her passionate narrator, Anne Greves, Echlin is not afraid to risk everything in this aching, heart-wrenching novel of young love aligned against human atrocity. In Anne’s decades-long search for her missing lover, we see how those touched by genocide take the darkness inside themselves, holding annihilation at bay only through the defiant refusal to forget. A slender book of remembering, The Disappeared is unforgettable.” —Sheri Holman

“The familiar tale of star-crossed lovers is revisited with gripping immediacy and compelling freshness in Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared. Writing with sensuality, yearning, and in a voice readers will not soon forget, Ms. Echlin reminds us of the potency of our first loves, and of their enduring ability to shape and haunt us.” —Stephanie Kallos

“Luminous . . . [A] precise, expressive story . . . Erotic and spiritual . . . Echlin’s storytelling, shifting continents and years in a paragraph, gathers much of its pace and grace equally from her lyrical prose. . . . For all its brevity, The Disappeared still attends to the skulls and bones and slaughterhouses of Cambodia’s agony. . . . Emerging from [the] final pages is an act of love, and an image of horror, that elevates The Disappeared to a level of tragic intensity that it had been bound for from its opening sentences. To describe the act apart from its setting as the climax of a powerfully vivid narrative would be ruin its extreme beauty. . . . The book, which can be read in a single sitting, builds toward a complex expression of annihilating loss and eternal love that is best experienced, in a sense, like the final act of a tragic play: as something inevitable and beyond the calculations of reason.” —Charles Foran, The Globe and Mail

“[An] engrossing literary novel . . . A beautiful elegy about two lovers who struggle to overcome the betrayal of their families and their fellow man.” —Harriet Zaidman, Winnipeg Free Press

“[An] absorbing new novel . . . Echlin approaches her subject with the delicacy and solemnity it deserves. . . . A beautiful work of art . . . The Disappeared takes its place with such other chronicles of female desire as Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept or Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, here yoked to a history that makes it both larger and more keen. . . . Echlin successfully links the void in Anne’s heart with the void left in the lives of millions of mothers, widows and children, as well as with the erasure of cultural memory that was not only the intent of the Khmer Rouge but wholly embraced by those who followed. . . . The Disappeared is an expert novel, which manages to penetrate to the aching core of the Cambodian tragedy. . . . The Disappeared presents desire as an antidote to despair. We may need one, if those who committed the crimes that make memorials like this one necessary continue to, all these years later, elude karma.” —Frank Moher, National Post

“Echlin’s pristine prose . . . evokes the pull of eros as Anne searches for the man she loves in one of the world’s most dangerous places. But Echlin is equally skilled at portraying the effects of trauma on the human spirit. . . . The Disappeared goes to poetic lengths in order to come to grips with events too terrible to contemplate calmly . . . [and] I say thank you to writers who seek to open our eyes and minds.” —Susan G. Cole, NOW

“[Kim Echlin] summons the swirling passions of unfettered love, the blank panic of all-consuming grief and the devastating after-effects of holocaust with unsettling precision, making this novel a painfully emotional journey.” —Metro (London)

“Remarkable . . . In a brief 228 pages, Echlin manages to juxtapose the horrific depravity of the Pol Pot era, and its brutal successor, against the power and resilience of individual human courage. . . . The Disappeared is written with singular elegance, a polished, poetic, deeply affecting novel from a writer in impressive control of her craft.” —Nancy Schieffer, London Free Press (Canada)

“A stunning novel of passion and tragedy . . . Haunting and vivid, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.” —New Zealand Woman’s Weekly

“Kim Echlin has a vivid style all her own . . . Spare . . . Poetical . . . A story which will live long in the memory, as much for the way Echlin writes as for the subject matter.” —Lindsay Jones, Newham Recorder

“[The Disappeared] . . . is unreal. . . . A slim passionate work . . . [written] with deftness and extraordinary poetics. . . . The Disappeared is . . . a heartbreaker of a novel possessed of beauty and a fearless sure-footedness. I’d be shocked to read a more affecting . . . novel this year.” —Words Worth Books

“Powerful and poignant, Echlin’s writing approaches poetry and her descriptions are truly breathtaking.” —Toronto Reading Series

“A poignant love story and a memorable journey through a nation’s troubled past . . . Of all the tensions Echlin successfully negotiates in her novel—loss and recovery, betrayal and forgiveness, Eastern atrocity and Western indifference—the intersection of memory and language is the most nuanced. . . . Echlin is most effective as a steward of [the survivors’] stories . . . with prose that is direct and devastating. She finds small acts of grace and dignity amid the suffering, and in this novel, it is these quiet gestures that speak the loudest.” —Danielle Groen, The Walrus (Canada)

“Through the tragic love story of two lost souls, Kim Echlin adds an urgent human dimension to the unbearable numbers of history’s inhumanity. . . . [A] searing book that attempts to give names and faces to the far too many that disappeared, and the few who tried to survive with some semblance of humanity intact.” —Book Dragon (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program online)

“[The Disappeared] is lively, heartbreaking, political, and soul-searching, and will be read both for its beauty and its pain.” —The Literateur (online)

“Intoxicatingly paced, Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared draws the reader into the rich experiences of its characters and their vibrant relationships and worlds. Echlin convincingly captures perspectives and emotions at different ages—the naive conviction and unstoppable passion of a precocious teenager, the quiet resolve of an aging widower and parent, the death-defying devotion of a person to a tragically lost family, history and country, the determination bordering on obsession of another person literally reclaiming pieces of a shattered life and love. . . . [Echlin] sweeps the reader into 1960s-70s Montreal and Phnom Penh and back again. This is a moving, evocative and unforgettable story.” —Bookgaga (online)

“Raw . . . [with] a sense of vivid intimacy.” —Joyce Nickel, Belletrista (online)


Winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction
New York Times Editors’ Choice
Longlisted for the 2011 the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award
Finalist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A New York Post “Required Reading” Title
A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Title


After the first time, there is no rest. Every day we invented ways to be alone behind the closed door of your place on Bleury Street. You picked me up at school and we went straight to your yellow room. You played tapes of Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron and I listened to a chapay singer called Kong Nai and I heard Khmer rockabilly and surf and soul and two-stringed and four-stringed guitars and farfisa electric organs and rock drumming and lyrics I did not understand.

I stayed overnight. I came and went as I pleased and I wore my father down. He swore at me and threatened to lock me in my room. But it was too late for that and when he had exhausted himself he said, You are stubborn. Even as a child I couldn’t do a thing about it. You are a fool to ruin your life.

But a girl understands with her first lover that there is no daughter who does not betray the father, there are only great crashing waves of the woman to come, gathering and building and breaking and thrashing the shore. I watched my body’s swelling and aching and flowing and shrinking as a sailor watches the changing surface of the waves. I let you do anything. I did anything I wanted and Bleury Street became my world.

Reading Group Guide

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

1. Begin your discussion of the novel by considering its narrative structure, the way in which ghosts of the past take on an urgency thirty or forty years later. Consider the sentence: “Bones work their way to the surface” and talk about what the author means by this, then expand your discussion to its relevance to the work as a whole (p. 3).

2. Why does Anne choose to tell her story after so many years? What is the catalyst? Do you think she will be able to move on with her life more easily after the telling?

3. Consider the way the author uses the second person voice throughout the narrative. How did this affect you as you read? While Anne is clearly addressing herself to her lover, Serey, did you at times get the impression that the novel was being spoken directly to you? Did you feel as if you were bearing witness or being more like an observer? As Anne bares her soul to the memory of her dead lover she presents a very specific viewpoint. How does this affect the novel as a whole? Did you ever find the intimacy domineering or claustrophobic?

4. Anne lost her mother at the age of two and has very little memory of her. What are the facts that we know about the mother? Find parallels between her mother’s life and her own. “I knew one thing my mother would have wanted for me, her own desire—to live . . . I felt her ghost urging me, live, live for me, go, live, it ends at any instant, live, be free” (p. 27). How true do you think this is, or do you have a feeling that Anne is super-imposing her own wishes? Do you think these are sixteen-year-old Anne’s thoughts, or those of an older, wiser Anne looking back and retelling her own story?

5. Life for Anne seems to begin when she meets Serey at age sixteen. While she glosses over or leaves out details of her childhood, obviously her unconventional upbringing had an impact on her teenage and adult self. Find instances throughout the novel of ways in which she has been shaped by her early life experiences. What is it about her early years that makes her so ripe for the grand passion of her affair with Serey?

6. To the other girls, Serey is “a novelty, a charismatic Asian guy” (p. 19). They were “drawn to the gloom and glory” of his exile (p. 19). Even Anne is impressed with his “exotic past,” his charming Khmer and French-accented blues songs (p. 19). But for her there is much more—what exactly does he represent and why is this so important to her?

7. When he first sets eyes on Anne, Serey is taken in by “the way she seemed so free” (p. 5). Later he describes life in Montreal as “unbelievably free” (p. 6). At what point do we realize how important this is to him—and how his days of freedom in Montreal will affect him later?

8. The first days and weeks of their love affair are set to a sound track of the blues with its plaintive, urgent stories of life and loss. While the blues clubs represent a new world to Anne, a vibrant, forbidden across-the-tracks kind of world, as their relationship develops music becomes even more important, almost a life force. Trace the theme of music throughout the novel from Montreal to Cambodia, where to be a musician can get you killed and to play music is an act of defiance.

9. Anne and Serey’s personal love story plays out against the backdrop of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. Serey’s enforced exile casts its shadow over their relationship, intensifying it, and making it into something larger—and ultimately doomed. Does Anne sense this from the beginning? What are her intimations about the special intensity and vulnerability of their love?

10. Talk about the theme of family as it entwines its way through the novel. In Anne, Serey finds an avid listener to the tales of his childhood, of his parents, and especially his younger brother, Sokha. He keeps them alive through his stories and his memories, and they begin to live through Anne, too. Why is this so important to him—and to the themes of the novel as a whole?

11. Discuss how the poetic language of the novel elevates Serey and Anne’s relationship to an almost mythic level. Find examples of this throughout the Montreal section of the novel. How does the natural wintry setting affect the mood? Consider also the melding of cultural traditions and find moments of beauty that make this into more than a young love affair.

12. When Serey asks, “Do you know what it means to send a letter to your family and read that it is undeliverable?” is it fair of him to expect Anne to understand? (p. 42). Find ways in which his family situation is similar to Anne’s. The novel begs the question of whether it is possible to truly know another person, no matter how close one becomes. In Serey and Anne’s case is the cultural divide too wide? What does Serey mean when he says “my country is my skin?” (p. 29).

13. How has Serey changed when Anne finds him again in Phnom Penh? How has he stayed the same?

14. “All those years in Montreal . . . I dreamed of my parents. But they died on the first day. All those years I was dreaming about the dead” (p. 122). These are Serey’s words to Anne about the loss he has suffered, a loss that he hasn’t wanted to share with Anne, that he had preferred to bury in silence. He seems to regret having spoken about his family when they were already dead, to reproach himself for his hopes of seeing them again. Why do you think this is? Why do you think he retreats into silence and cuts himself off from Anne? Talk about Anne’s reaction.

15. How successful is the author at using Anne and Serey’s personal tragedy as a way of looking at the horror of Cambodia’s large-scale tragedy, the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm? Is it easier to reflect on and understand such an appalling part of history by focusing on one couple’s journey through this hell on earth? Talk about the way the author shows the outsider’s view through Anne with her need to understand Serey, to learn Khmer, her insatiable curiosity to visit the killing fields and slaughterhouses. Then compare her viewpoint to those of the Western backpackers who come to visit, and the Western officials who attempt to enforce free and fair elections. Are there different degrees of knowing a country?

16. The importance of words intertwines throughout the text—during Anne’s childhood bedtime stories her father’s voice would peter off as he gazed at a photo of her mother, “I think I began to read this way, studying the words in an open book, waiting for absence to be filled” (p. 11). When Serey returned to Cambodia Anne immersed herself in studying languages. Talk about this chilling sentence, “The Khmer Rouge used words to kill people,” and discuss the power of language (p. 88). Consider the terrible actions that such phrases give rise to: “Cleanse the enemy,” “To keep you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss.” Also consider the ways in which the absence of words is used as a weapon under Pol Pot until eventually those who have disappeared are not spoken about, their names not mentioned, their fate not known.

17. Anne’s father is portrayed as kind yet distant throughout the novel, entrusting her upbringing to a housekeeper. Talk about the important role he plays in Anne’s life. What are your feelings toward him—do you resent his involvement in Anne’s love affair, his silence about Serey’s letters? How does Anne feel about him? Why does she never challenge him about his actions?

18. The author’s sensuous writing brings to life the chaos, poverty, and corruption of Phnom Penh, of a population of survivors struggling through each day. Discuss her vivid depiction of the smells and odors of the city and their effect on its populace.

19. The Khmer regime and Year Zero deliberately erased all expression of the role of family, culture, and religion within society. Look at some of the minor characters in the novel—the driver Mau, Sopheap with her noodle stand, Nai the chapei player—and find instances in which they have regained some of the old ways.

20. Talk about Serey’s complicated feelings for his brother, Sokha, and trace his changing emotions. Consider the sentence, “Your life and Sokha’s was a single stream that divided around a rock, one part falling into thin air over a precipice and the other meandering along the earth in a different direction” (p. 118). What do you think is meant by this? Does Sokha blame his brother for becoming a soldier, a killer? Find instances of the love that is still shared between them.

21. In the middle of the book Anne meets fellow Canadian Will Maracle, whose job in Cambodia is to open the mass graves and count the bodies. What do you think his role is in the novel? When asked by Anne what will be done once the number of bodies is known he answers, “Maybe the only hope is that our humanity might kick into a higher gear, that the more we admit to seeing, the more we will believe we are not that different from each other” (p. 68). What does he mean?

22. Discuss the novel’s tumultuous ending as Anne journeys almost to the heart of darkness to find her lover—or his corpse. Did you find her quest brave or foolhardy? At what point does her mission change from finding Serey to finding his body—has she known all along that he was dead? What is Will’s role in the expedition?

23. Consider Anne’s conversation with Ma Rith, the chief of police. In answer to his question, “What purpose to revisit the past?” she says, “To claim the present” (p. 208). What do you think she means by this? Do you think she would have been able to gain any kind of closure by keeping and burying Serey’s skull?

24. Reread the moving scene in which Anne prepares her father’s corpse for burial (p. 223). How much of her tender care is for her father, and how much for Serey? Or perhaps just for herself?

25. “The strangeness of my love for you is that it has made me dead in life and you alive in death. I am afraid you will disappear and no one will remember your name” (p. 194). This has been Anne’s worry from the first time she met Serey. It is why the survivors wrote the names of the dead on their photographs at the extermination center, Tuol Sleng. Discuss the theme of memory in the novel, the ways in which it is taken away from people, and ultimately how it can be the most defiant act. Remember the epigraph from Vann Nath, one of seven survivors of Tuol Sleng, “Tell others,” and discuss whether it is enough to just remember. Find ways throughout the novel in which memories are shared so that individual strands of history weave in with other personal memories to create a weighty memorial.

Suggested Further Reading:

Kim Echlin has drawn from a wide literary tradition. Following are some of the writers who have reflected on history and conscience whom she admires:


Beijing Coma by Ma Jian; Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman; Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano; The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera; Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee; Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald; The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje


Open Letters by Vaclav Havel; Literature or Life by Jorge Semprun; In My Brother’s Shadow by Uwe Timm; Facing the Extreme by Tzvetan Todorov; At the Mind’s Limits by Jean Amery