In the Shadow of the BanyanIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To render historical, political fiction in the voice and through the eyes of a young child, a writer sets herself a tremendous challenge and takes on great risk. Children are naturally fanciful, unreliable creatures – not dishonest, but only able to offer the truth as their immature brains can grasp and explain it. When the story is revealed as the author’s own, the reader feels compelled to accept a fictionalized account as mere degrees of separation from the truth.

What Vaddey Ratner has accomplished with her striking and lovely In the Shadow of the Banyan is a tone poem. Its outline is based on the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime, but the narrative floats on themes of family, mythology and the deadly beauty of the author’s homeland. The nanny of the story’s narrator, Raami – the author’s mirror character – says it best when she declares that stories “are like footpaths of the gods. They lead us back and forth across time and space and connect us to the entire universe.”

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story that connects us to Cambodia’s recent past and the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970’s. Because we are seeing the events unfold through the eyes and within the heart of a seven-year old girl, we are twisted and wrenched by a child’s vulnerability and hope but spared the most gruesome details of torture and obliteration. In many ways this is a grace, for it allows us to focus on the child’s small world of her privileged family and their servants without being overwhelmed by the incomprehensible horror of Cambodia’s civil war. But it also renders some characters shadowy and incomplete and glosses over context that would have helped create a firmer narrative.

Although the book jacket declares the novel covers the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, the action is heavily concentrated on the first days and weeks after the capture and exile of Raami’s family. The first half of the book is a near moment-by-moment recount of the first weeks after the Khmer Rouge declares a new state on April 17, 1975. The second half chronicles the splitting apart of Raami’s family as one relative after another is slaughtered outright or dies as a result of their enslavement. There is a reference to the second anniversary of the Revolution and to Raami’s ninth birthday. The book’s final pages mention the war between Vietnam and Cambodia and the retreating Khmer Rouge armies, so it must end in the early weeks or months of 1979. This is significant to me because I feel the details invested in the early parts are tedious at times, whereas the shifts of time and events in the latter third of the novel, as Raami ages and suffers and grows as a refugee in her own homeland, are given broad, vague brushstrokes.

Ultimately, however, it is a book I feel honored to have read. Ratner’s language is lyrical and stirring; she creates gorgeous and vivid portrait of Cambodia, filling the reader with longing to see, hear, taste, and touch a vibrant, complex land. It offers a unique perspective into a history and culture little or mis-understood in the West and I hope other readers have the same reaction as I – of wanting to know more, to read more, to hear other survivors’ stories – in an effort to understand and to humanize the newspaper headlines.

My husband, as a teacher of high school history and social studies, received a Fulbright grant and spent several weeks in Southeast Asia a few years ago. Cambodia and Vietnam, in equal measure but for different reasons, touched him to his core. Vietnam’s recent history he was, of course, more familiar; U.S. history books treat Cambodia’s chaos as a post-script to the “American” War (as the Vietnam War is known in Southeast Asia). When you begin to fully grasp a reality that is little mentioned in our own history books, it’s a horrible slap in the face – a sensation of guilt and anger that in your ignorance, you are somehow complicit. It is through the gift of authors such as Vaddey Ratner that these stories are told so we all can wake up and learn.
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