Title: In the Shadow of the Banyan
Author: Vaddey Ratner
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Raami is just seven years old when the Khmer Rouge take power in Cambodia in 1975. Her father is a member of the royal family, and thus, Raami’s well-educated, intellectual family is a target for the Organization. Ripped away from everything she knows and loves, Raami must witness and survive atrocity after atrocity in order to survive the madness around her.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a heartbreaking look at the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of devastation and mass murder across Cambodia. Raami is too young to understand what’s happening around her. She can tell that her parents are scared, but she can’t fully comprehend the scale of what she’s seeing. The growth she experiences over the course of the novel is well-depicted, but it’s also tragic. A child adjusting to seeing corpses in the field and random killings? It’s barbaric what Raami, and the people of Cambodia, had to face.
Ratner doesn’t provide many details regarding the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of the Cambodian government. This novel is basically autobiographical; Ratner is telling the story she remembers as a child. As a result, the reader only sees what Raami sees and understands only what she understands. There isn’t a birds’ eye view of the situation; this is a novel that will make you want to learn more about a historical period, rather than really teaching you about it. That being said, Ratner’s technique in telling the story solely through Raami is incredibly effective in that the reader feels lost and forlorn, sympathizing with Raami, while reading.
The writing in In the Shadow of the Banyan is absolutely breathtaking. Ratner is a talented author and her words are like a balm to the soul. She describes such horror in her novel (though she’s careful to not be too descriptive, leaving the worst to the reader’s imagination), yet she does so with such elegant prose. It’s an amazing juxtaposition, to read a story of such pain through words of such incredibly beauty.
While Raami is a wonderfully drawn character, it’s difficult to emotionally connect to her in The Shadow of the Banyan. Perhaps this is a reader defense mechanism; if there’s not an emotional connection to the story, then the atrocities described within, while painful, will not be too difficult to bear. I felt as though the entire book was holding me at arms’ length, allowing me only a glimpse of what was inside. It wasn’t until the author’s note at the end of the book that I really connected emotionally to the story.
That being said, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an incredibly heartbreaking tale, but Ratner reminds us that, through everything, Raami is loved. And that love, that hope, carries her (and the reader) through these horrible times. Even when it seems like love is simply not enough to fill the holes inside Raami, something reminds her that it’s at least enough to keep going for just one more day. It’s a beautiful message tucked inside a story full of heartbreak and despair. It’s a novel well worth reading for almost any audience.