REVIEW: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

11/19/2012 — Leave a comment

The Blurb

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.

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My Thoughts

It’s so hard to put what I think into words on this one. I have friends (Canadian friends) who moved to Cambodia a few years back, and when they came back to visit after the first year abroad, they told stories about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime. It happened just before I was born, so I had no idea – and it’s not taught in school like the World Wars.

A couple years after that, I read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, in which I read some of the worst treatment on the Cambodians – it was a memoir, after all. That book didn’t really explain the *why* behind it, though.

So this book is a mixture of things for me. It’s a chance to learn more about this terrible regime (albeit a fictional book, it is based off Ratner’s own experiences with the Khmer Rouge at the age of 5). I found it a bit soft compared to other things I’ve heard and read about the genocide – in the sense that the author toned down the violence and somewhat romanticized (it’s the wrong word, I can’t seem to think of the right one) the character’s ordeal. She talks of people “settling in” and as if they went about ordinary lives when in reality they were being carted off and executed, tortured and starved to death. That’s not to say that the characters didn’t go through some extremely hard things – it’s just that the story was softened. The violence is only occasionally mentioned until near the end of the book, when it picks up the pace a little.

One thing this book did do was answer a little bit of the “why” questions I had. It doesn’t fully explain it (although I’m not sure it can be fully explained), but it was a start. The author included many of the rules of the regime in the plot, and some of their way of thinking. It was delusional, too ideological – and that’s why it failed, but it shows something of the human condition, it’s something we see in war after war after war. The way people were treated has happened in war after war after war. It’s sickening.

As for the characters, we start off with a family who is very privileged, and we see them torn apart and their spirits broken throughout the book. I felt a strong connection to Raami and her father, though her mother seemed a bit distant, perhaps because the book is written from Raami’s point of view and that’s how the relationships were developed. I started to see Raami’s mother in a different light as the book goes on, but I still felt disconnected from her – which is weird…I feel that as a mother myself I should have identified with her more.

All in all, the book is beautifully written, and if I hadn’t known a little bit about the more violent parts of the Khmer Rouge regime, I would have completely loved it. It’s probably an excellent book for someone without this knowledge, as an opening to learn about this genocide that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves.

My Rating: 4 stars

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