Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

If we think about communism in Asia, as Americans we tend to focus on China or Korea or Vietnam. Very few people probably include Cambodia in that list and an even smaller handful of people are likely to have any knowledge of the Cambodian revolution and civil war in the 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the atrocities they perpetuated, and the genocide that followed their takeover of this South East Asian neighbor to Vietnam. Vaddey Ratner's lyrical and heartbreaking tale of a seven year old girl's view of the revolution, based loosely on her own terrible experiences living through that desperate time, brings the reality of the time to vivid life.

Raami is a young princess in the Cambodian royal family.  Despite her leg brace, needed after suffering polio as a baby, she lives a privileged life with her graceful mother, sensitive and poetic father, and beautiful baby sister.  But her educated and wealthy family is not blind or indifferent to the poverty and want that seems to be growing daily outside their door.  And as loved as the royal family is in some quarters, when the revolution comes, they too are swept up in the exodus from the city, hiding their origins in order to survive and struggling to stay together. The situation escalates as they move from place to place, feeling the pinch of hunger and forced into meaningless backbreaking labor. And they are not spared the suffering, separation, and the deaths of those they love that people all across the country endure at the brutal hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Because Raami is merely a child, the narration captures the horrific alongside her innocence and lack of understanding of the bigger, more menacing reality. She is sustained by the memory of her father's lyrical poetry and the fanciful stories she's internalized. And she has the striking ability to notice the landscape and the beauty of nature all around her even in the midst of horrors. This perspective helps to temper the graphic and terrible experiences, muting them some for the reader as well. As Raami recounts the starvation and the inhumanity of the labor camps, the deaths, and the brutality, she also finds instances of good and kindness around her, counterbalancing the inhumanity of man.

The novel is beautifully written although it still remains difficult to read about the worst of the atrocities, even with the gentler perspective of a child. And it is hard to believe that all of this horror was packed into only four years because there's so much sorrow and pain. Ratner's first hand experience shines through the text and her ability to find the beauty in the Cambodia she left so long ago and which decimated her beloved family is astounding. She has written a novel that doesn't shy away from documenting the worst of humanity but also celebrates survival, the resilience of the human heart, and the enduring bonds of family and of love. You won't soon forget this one.


  1. I thought this book was so powerful, I read it about a year ago and I can still remember it clearly now. Glad you enjoyed it too.

  2. I gave this a five star rating too. Wonderful writing!
    Book Dilettante

  3. I bought this over the holidays, haven't gotten to it yet, but hope to soon. Lovely review.

  4. Yeah I'd like to read this one too. The author came to our city's book festival. It sounds powerful

  5. New subscriber from the What Are You Reading link-up. TBR'd this book on GoodReads.


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