Review of In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Overview from www.goodreads.com: 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.
Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.
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.
The book for this week will be one of my few forays into the world of Literary Fiction. It was recommended by one of my writing magazines and it sounded intriguing.
In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of the experiences of one seven-year-old Cambodian girl when the Khmer Rouge win the civil war in that country and attempt to change it into a Communist nation.
The girl, Raami, has been born into the royal family of Cambodia and her father is considered a minor nobleman as well as something of a famous poet. As if war wasn’t bad enough, Raami’s life is about to get much worse when they are forced from their home in Phnom Penh in the new government’s attempt to make peasants out of city dwellers.
The family is moved around until her father finally admits his royal heritage to the new government and is taken away. That is when Raami’s world really begins to change. As per her father’s admonition, she and the rest of their family must never admit their royal origins. It is the only way for them to survive and this is what her father wanted. He sacrificed himself for them though it soon appears to Raami that is all in vain when her family members are dying right and left.
It isn’t until near the end of the story that Raami finally understands her father’s words to her before he was taken away and what he was trying to do. She vows to carry the memory of her father’s love and sacrifice around for the rest of her life. It is all she can do to survive the atrocities the government carries out against her and keep his memory alive.
This story is very sad yet beautiful at the same time because of the author’s beautiful and poetic prose. Some awful, dehumanizing things happen yet the way she weaves the tale makes it beautiful and bittersweet.
It reminded me a lot of Lisa See’s book Dreams of Joy which covers “The Great Leap Forward” period of China’s history. Both stories cover similar atrocities as well as mass starvation of the people. Under the guise of helping the poor, the governments involved simply use them to further their aims of proving to the rest of the world that they are in the right.
In this book, the government is referred to as “The Organization.” As a citizen of Cambodia, each person “belongs” to The Organization and can be ordered to go wherever officials send them and to do whatever work they deem necessary. To be an ideal citizen one must essentially become a robot. Any display of family loyalty or emotion in general is considered “unrevolutionary” and can be punished severely.
I liked this book, in spite of the heavy content. It is a story that needs to be told and the author at least makes it as painless as possible. I am therefore recommending it highly because no matter how sad it may make you feel, you need to know this story. It is based on the truth.
Contains: lots of violence, some language.