In the Shadow of the Banyan, a novel by Vaddey Ratner, tells the story of a royal family from the perspective of their young daughter, Raami, during the Khmer Rouge’s violent attempt to return Cambodia to countryside communism. Ms. Ratner was 5 years old when she and her family were part of the forced exodus out of Cambodia’s cities, a fact that is difficult to forget as we read about Raami (who is 7 at the opening of the novel) and her slow descent into starvation, and the loss of family member after family member she experiences.
The opening of In the Shadow of the Banyan was a difficult start for me. I have found that I don’t very often enjoy books for adults written in the perspective of a child (The Boy in the Striped Pajama’s, The Book Thief). I’m not a writer, but it seems difficult to pull off such a young voice, when you are trying to be “smart” enough for an older audience. In the Shadow had a shaky first chapter. Everything was written in simile and metaphor, to the distraction of the story. In fact, I was getting so annoyed by the “the sun was as yellow as… the birds were as lively as…” ad infinitum, that I nearly put the book down.
I’m glad I didn’t.
Ms. Ratner hit her stride when Raami’s family had left the city and began their journey into the countryside for their “reeducation”. Although there is some lovely ambiguity in Raami’s father’s political ideals juxtaposed with the current revolution, In the Shadow isn’t really a political book. It is a book about survival, love, and remembrance. The author opens up a Cambodia to the reader that feels lush, real, and relevant. In the midst of the beauty of the countryside Raami narrates the horror she experiences, and I felt that the experiences and the conclusions Raami draws about life and love were authentic and moving.
Although a little slow in places, and difficult to begin, In the Shadow of the Banyan was a lovely story, and a wonderfully written glimpse of the Cambodian experience of revolution in the 1970s.
K’s rating of In the Shadow of the Banyan: 6.5/10 mangoes