“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.” So begins the tale of Raami, a seven year old girl belonging to the Cambodian royal family. When the Communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge seizes power, Raami and her family are forced out of their family home and into labour camps where starvation and death are rampant. The book closely mirrors the experiences of the author herself, for like Raami, Vaddey Ratner belonged to the Cambodian royal family and experienced the Khmer Rouge killing fields when she was just five years old.
Despite the depressing subject matter of the novel, one of the most surprising things about In the Shadow of the Banyan is the sense of beauty and hope that are evoked through the writing. In fact, I think the only words to describe Ratner’s style of writing is the often cliched phrase “hauntingly beautiful.” There were countless times where I found myself stopping and re-reading a sentence over and over again just to enjoy its artistry. I especially enjoyed Ratner’s use of legends and folktales throughout the novel to demonstrate the ability of stories to give hope and strength in a world that is quickly falling to pieces.
“I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything – your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.”
The love that flows from this book is also extremely moving, and will surely pull at any reader’s heartstrings. The relationship between Raami and her father, for example, though only briefly displayed in the story, left such a deep impression on me that it still consumes my thoughts days after finishing the novel. I think it is Raami’s perspective as a child that allows this sense of love to permeate the story rather than the anger and hatred one would typically feel in such a tragic situation.
In writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, Ratner has not only created a beautiful remembrance for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, but a masterpiece that will surely stand the tests of time. Overall, I was extremely moved by Raami’s story and in absolute awe of Ratner’s writing. A moving debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyon is a must read for adult fiction readers.
Rating: 5 Stars
“It’s a gift to be able to imagine heaven, and a rebirth to actually glimpse it.”
“Had I owned the words I would’ve told him what my heart intuited – that joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes whether by grace or misfortune they meet and become each other’s companion.”
“Bury me and I’ll thrive as countless insects
I bend neither to your weapon nor will
Even as you trample upon my bones
I cower not under your soulless tread
Or fear your shadow casting upon my grave.”
“Papa?” I whispered, cautious with my discovery. “Will – will your spirit go to the moon then?” He seemed to still himself completely. Finally, he said, his voice quivering, “Yes…” He steadied and continued, “I will follow you, and you’ll have only to look at the sky to find me, wherever you are.”