When I came to live in France one of the historical events that I didn’t know very much about was the tragic destruction of Cambodia, otherwise known as the killing fields. I started to hear more about it and my curiosity led me to pick up In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. I don’t flock so easily to nonfiction although in the past three years I have to say I’m reading more of it. This being said I decided to read this novel a few years back with a book club. You can read my blog review here and check out my video review here. I hope to get to Music of the Ghosts in 2020, which is a continuation of In the Shadow of the Banyan.
I highly recommend In the Shadow of the Banyan to readers who are interested in a fictional account(based on the author’s life) of the Khmer Rouge take over of Cambodia and reading a novel with beautiful writing.
“Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus…” (In the Shadow of the Banyan, inside cover)
In the Shadow of the Banyan – Vaddey Ratner
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
My rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
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I read In the Shadow of the Banyan at the beginning of the month. It took me three and a half days to read but then plunged me into a week + worth of thought. We’re nearing the close of the month of May and I still can’t get this book off my mind. I figure my reading for the month of May was all worth it because I had the pleasure of experiencing my second 5 star book of the year 2014. Now if you’ve been following me here or over at frenchiedee you know that I absolutely don’t have a habit of giving out 5 star ratings.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is the fictionalised story of Vaddey Ratner’s four-year ordeal living through the genocide that took place in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. The main character is called Raami and she is seven years old when the story begins. The first few chapters we are introduced to her family and their lifestyle. They are a wealthy and privileged family. They are a royal family in Cambodia and her father is a poet as well. Soon there after we learn that the Khmer Rouge have taken over the country and are driving the population from the city to the countryside. There they are made to work in the rice paddies, surviving on little food. The Khmer Rouge are enforcing Marxist philosophy on the population and forcing them to forget life as it was before. People of privilege, professors, scientists, teachers, artists, musicians, etc. are hunted down and killed. They are perceived as enemies to the Organization.
This story is more than just a retelling of a historical event and of Ratner’s experience. It is a story of human survival. I’m sure every reader of this novel wonders how they would behave if they had to go through such a situation. I thought through it so much and feel as though I would have caved in and hoped for a swift death. Ratner shows the limits of human beings and how survival is not necessarily dictated by what one may think. Raami thinks a lot of her father, the things she remembers that he said to her, and of his poetry. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can help someone to survive.
The writing in In the Shadow of the Banyan is absolutely beautiful! That Ratner could write such beautiful prose about such a blight on Cambodian history and on her family is remarkable. Since we see this story through the eyes of a seven year old, things are recounted with much detail. This detail may be perceived as wordy but I assure you that it is not the case. The descriptions are there so that we as readers are literally transported to Cambodia. We see, feel, and taste what Raami describes. There were passages that were difficult to read, but Ratner’s writing becomes a metaphor for the insidious behaviour of the Khmer Rouge. In the beginning the people don’t understand what is happening to them but quickly things change and they realise they are trapped in horror. Even Raami develops over the 410 pages tremendously. In the beginning, she is naive young and joyful despite her handicap, but her character development is portrayed with the right flow of the story.
Another interesting aspect of this story is the relationship between mother and daughter in such a traumatic life/death event. Their relationship at the beginning of the story seems fairly undefined but thrown into the uncertainty of this historical event, mother and daughter learn a lot about each other and marvel over each others’ strengths. This is one of the most touching parts of the story. I just can’t gush enough over this novel. It’s a must read. Pick this one up because you won’t regret it. Check out Vaddey Ratner below talking about In the Shadow of the Banyan.