In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Published by Simon & Schuster on August 7th 2012
Genres: Adult, Semi-Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322

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.

4 Stars

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a semi-fictional debut written by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. This is a touching but devastating tale of power, family, and survival. I saw this book at a store, having never heard of its existence before. No one had recommended this to me. No shop assistant had pointed me in its direction. I stumbled across this beautiful, heart-felt debut by chance, and I’m glad I did.

“First and foremost, I wanted to honour the lives lost and those who made momumental sacrifices to save me.”
– Vaddey Ratner

Considering that Ratner began to learn English as an 11-yr old, the exquisite prose is all the more impressive. The East-Asian setting was brought to life with delicate wording, though some passages may have been overly descriptive for my taste. The beautiful writing clashes with the horrifying content – escape, hunger, and bloodshed. The story is told from the view of Raami, a young girl who had grown up in a noble family until the first days of war shattered her peaceful childhood. Knowing that the author had probably experienced many of the events described in the book herself made the content all the more gut-wrenching. To the me as a reader, it made no difference whether I was reading from Raami’s or Vaddey’s point of view, as biography and fiction probably blur seamlessly in In the Shadow of the Banyan. Though the narrator’s voice was a bit too mature for a child of this age, the direct thoughts and actions were those of a young girl nonetheless.

For me, this book holds importance due to many of us in our little tourist bubbles have forgotten what horrors Cambodians experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge, a nationalist movement blooming in the shadow of a communist party, were responsible for orchestrating a Cambodian genocide. During their reign, members of the former Cambodian government, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities were tortured and executed. As a descendant of King Sisowath, Vaddey Ratner’s – and therefore also Raami’s – royal name, which had once meant protection and comofrt, marked them for death during the Khmer Roughe reign. Ratner’s childhood during the regime consisted of forced labour, starvation, and near execution. The despair of a child caught in the web of war is well reflected through the suffering of Raami.

During the years of hardship, Raami’s only source of hope are her father’s stories and poems about courage and resilience. Words are an important tool of survival in this book.

“Words, you see,” he said, looking at me again, “allow us to make permanent what is essentially transient. Turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical.”

The aim of this book wasn’t to report the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge and the horrors witnessed by the Cambodian people. Rather, In the Shadow of the Banyan sends a powerful message of love, sacrifice, and clinging to hope in the darkest moments.