Shiny Objects of Desire

Shiny ObjectsShiny Objects of Desire is available from Monument Books at $13.50. Wayne McCallum’s review appeared in The Advisor on 22 November

“The cover of Shiny Objects Of Desire is a fairly prosaic photograph of Phnom Penh’s waterfront in the gathering twilight of a Mekong evening. It’s a view that anyone who has spent time atop Le Moon or one of the other numerous Riverside rooftop haunts will know well. It’s a nice enough photograph; it’s just, well, sort of plain for a ‘shop window’ to a novel set in the city.

“But open the book out and lay it flat and you find something much more intriguing: a mirror image of the photograph on the front carries over to fill the rear jacket. Now the cover is transformed into something much more interesting and decidedly ‘non-prosaic’.

A cunning conceit, perhaps? PJ Coggan, Shiny Objects’ author, responds thus: “The rather nice mirror-image effect was a serendipitous fluke, for which I thank the young man at the printer’s who was in charge of putting the book together.”

“Hmmm. OK, but the book’s cover is a suitable metaphor as any for Shiny Objects which, on the surface, starts off like a fairly straightforward crime novel but evolves into something much more interesting as its story, like a fan, unfolds across the streets, alleyways and boulevards of Phnom Penh.

“The locations and places mentioned within should be well known to anyone who has spent time in the ‘charming city’. The cover’s riverfront is there, of course, while Norodom Boulevard features early on. Soon enough the less salubrious Street 136 makes an appearance; goodness even the street I live on turns up.

“You can quickly fall into a game of ‘Phnom Penh bingo’, ticking off places that you recognise or which – through the ruse of a disguised name change – can guess, all of which gives the book a sort of homely feel. Coggan certainly seems right at home along Riverside and its surrounding districts, an experience born from an association with the city that began early last decade. “I first visited Phnom Penh in 2002, after leaving a job with the UN in Morocco. I wanted to try a career with more autonomy and decided I’d travel around taking photos and selling travel articles on a freelance basis. In 2006 I came back and stayed till 2008. I’ve been back in 2010 (a trip to Ratanakiri), 2012 (researching a second book) and 2013 (seeing Shiny Objects through the press).”

“So what of the story? Like the cover, the account that lies between does not unfold as you might expect. At the centre of Coggan’s story is Burl, a Riverside expat restaurant owner. Burl is a man carefully avoiding emotional commitments, but who nonetheless remains fiercely loyal to his fellow expat bar-owner friends. Consequently, when one finds himself locked up at Prey Sar prison, Burl sees it as his duty to get his friend out.

“There’s only one problem: the person he needs to placate in order to achieve this noble goal is soon dead as well, and before you can say ‘Tuk tuk snatch-and-grab on Street 19,’ Burl is the prime suspect. So far so normal, you might say, but underneath all this is a much more nuanced tale. As Coggan himself confesses: “The point is contained in the title. If you end up knowing what the shiny objects are, you’ve got it.”

“Besides being a good read, Shiny Objects also serves as a useful knowledge pool of tips and hints of which even the most seasoned expat might not be aware. The most interesting of these, to this reviewer at least, is the fact the local constabulary maintains a file on every foreigner living in the city. Really. “The Foreigners Police really do exist, and they really do keep files on all the foreigners resident in the kingdom,” Coggan says.

“As a regular Mother Teresa, like my fellow Advisor colleagues, I can safely say that my file is probably very small, but the rest of you out there beware: as Shiny Objects shows, there is much more to Phnom Penh than appears on the surface.”