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- More About In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey RatnerOverviewYou are about to read an extraordinary story. It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.
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 the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her 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 a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.
Publishers Weekly Reviews
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-05-21
- Reviewer: Staff
The struggle for survival is relayed with elegance and humility in Ratner’s autobiographical debut novel set in Khmer Rouge–era Cambodia. Raami is seven when civil war erupts, and she and her family are forced to leave Phnom Penh for the countryside. As minor royalty, they’re in danger; the Khmer Rouge is systematically cleansing the country of wealthy and educated people. Escaping their Phnom Penh home aboard a rusty military vehicle, a gold necklace is traded for rice, and literacy can mean death; “They say anyone with glasses reads too much... the sign of an intellectual.” Amid hunger, the loss of much of her family, and labor camp toil, Raami clings to the beauty that her father has shown her in traditional mythology and his own poetry. Raami’s story closely follows that of Ratner’s own: a child when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, she endured years under their rule until she and her mother escaped to the United States in 1981. This stunning memorial expresses not just the terrors of the Khmer Rouge but also the beauty of what was lost. A hauntingly powerful novel imbued with the richness of old Cambodian lore, the devastation of monumental loss, and the spirit of survival. Agent: Emma Sweeney. (Aug.)BookPage Reviews
Finding magic in a time of cruelty
Stories enrich us in different ways. They entertain us and take us to faraway lands. They give insight into the lives of others, and aid us in our own introspection. For Raami, the child narrator of In the Shadow of the Banyan, stories bring salvation, giving her the strength to survive the Cambodian genocide. Raami contracted polio as an infant, and her father tells her stories from a young age, saying, “When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly . . . I told you stories to give you wings.” Raami holds these stories inside herself during impossible circumstances, maintaining the will to live.
This haunting debut novel is based on the amazing life story of author Vaddey Ratner, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s. Like Raami, she was born as minor royalty, forced out of her home in Phnom Penh, separated from family members and forced to perform hard labor until she nearly starved. In an author’s note, Ratner explains that she wrote a novel instead of a memoir because she wanted to reinvent and reimagine her experiences where “memory alone is inadequate.” Although the fictionalized story of Raami—who is seven when the story begins—stands on its own, the reader’s knowledge of Ratner’s close personal connection to the material makes the novel feel even more intimate and devastating.
Remarkably, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an uplifting story, as Raami’s humanity—her fierce choice of life—is juxtaposed with the cruelty around her. Ratner’s lyrical prose and graceful descriptions serve as a lovely counterpart to bleak situations, reminding us of literature’s ability to transcend. Her novel will no doubt inspire readers to learn more about this painful chapter in world history.