Alan Lightman’s ‘Three Flames’ examines the long shadow of Cambodia’s civil war


True confession: 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.

We do have a great tradition of books with important messages, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Jungle,” but the trick of balancing a moral point and literary flair is not easy to pull off.

This might be what novelist, theoretical physicist and MIT professor Alan Lightman had in mind in his new novel, “Three Flames.” Dedicated to the “strong and courageous young women of the Harpswell Foundation,” the novel tells the story of one struggling Cambodian family finding its way after a brutal civil war that tore the country apart, with millions slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. Lightman formed Harpswell about 10 years ago when he learned that many young Cambodian women attending college in Phnom Penh had no safe place to sleep, while male students could sleep inside temples or rent apartments.

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