The stories of one Cambodian family are intricately braided together in Alan Lightman’s first work of fiction in seven years. Three Flames portrays the struggles of a Cambodian farming family against the extreme patriarchal attitudes of their society and a cruel and dictatorial father, set in a rural community that is slowly being exposed to the modern world and its values.
[Lightman's] time spent in Cambodia is apparent through the beautiful and unforced descriptions in Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years ... Lightman illustrates generational family trauma in a way that is succinct (at a slim 208 pages, Three Flames can be read in the better part of a day) yet leaves just the right amount of speculation to the reader. Three Flames is moving and beautifully written—an unforgettable embodiment of the resilience of the human spirit.
Novels with do-gooder intentions make me wary. Literature should be something else. Mind-expanding, maybe. A journey into another world. Something to challenge my assumptions. Or maybe just something to hold at the beach as the waves crash over my toes ... The book’s narrative flow can be confounding at times ... I was tempted to write down a family tree with small descriptions, the way one would with a sprawling Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy work ... The family members are illustrations of Cambodian heartbreak rather than full-fledged characters.
It bears remarking that Lightman s 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.