This novel was a fascinating mix of cultures, with Cameron (Cam), a teenage Canadian boy, finding himself whisked away from everything he knew and felt comfortable with, into a new and alien country. Laos gets into his bones in a way he had never expected. The Buddhist religion permeates the Laos way of thinking and behaving, and eventually calms Cameron from the angry person who originally arrived from Canada.
However, a lot happens to get Cam to this point and some interesting characters are involved. Some of these I liked, some less so. Cam's mother is one of the less likable characters, she is self absorbed and career minded, dragging her son behind her. Their new neighbour, Somchai, however, is the embodiment of the Buddhist way of thinking and he teaches Cam a lot about forgiveness and caring for others. Nok is the 'love interest'. As a masseuse, she meets some pretty nasty people, and struggles to reconcile her desire to study with the need to earn money for herself and her brother, Seng. I wasn't keen on Seng, a big fat man who behaves childishly a lot of the time. He scrapes a living selling plastic rubbish from his bike and dreams of a future in America, Finally there is Sai, who Cam meets later in the book, after things all start to go wrong. Sai is a Buddhist monk and is the final piece in the chain of transforming Cam from his materialistic, selfish mind-set into an enlightened young man with his life ahead of him.
I loved the descriptions of Laos and its culture, and the transformation that Cam goes through as a result of his stay there. The Merit Birds of the title, are caged birds, bought to be released, to increase your karma, but all your good deeds count towards this end too.
Events do spiral out of control in a pretty drastic manner and I found the ending rather abrupt, but this was an excellent debut and is certainly an author I shall follow in the future.I think I have fallen in love with the Laos culture, it's now high on the list of countries I'd like to visit.