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Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddy Ratner (3/5)

31 Aug

I picked this book up at a library used book sale years ago. I’m surprised I finally got to it, if I’m being honest. But there’s the silver lining to quarantine.

Cover image via Amazon

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Summary from Amazon:

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.

This was not a book I was able to dive into and finish quickly. The subject matter was so dark that I had trouble reading even a chapter at night before I slept, which is my primary reading time. I also struggled with the book initially because it was written from the point of view of a young child and books in this style often rub me the wrong way. I can’t completely explain why but it has been consistent for a few years. It was hard for me to start immersing myself in the book once I got past Raami’s style because the death of the book was so pointless. I wanted to have some closure to it, but that wouldn’t have been real. What happened to the people of Cambodia as so horrible that it would have been wrong to have a hopeful or happy ending.

Ratner admits in the author’s note that Raami’s story is more or less her own. I think her descriptions of the people she knew along the way are so distinct because she’s drawing from memory. Her mother, father, uncle, and grandmother were the most distinct to me and I thought they were wonderful.

Raami herself was my favorite character. We see her change quickly from an innocent young girl to a girl who’s learned the reality of life far too quickly and who is trying to make sense of senseless violence. She sees people killed, betrayed, and broken in a way no child should. Her Polio shields her from some things, but not enough for her to remain unchanged.

It was hard to relate to these characters. I’ve never lived through anything as terrible as the Khmer Rouge regime and I hope I never do. This is part of what was so hard for me about reading this book. I wanted to connect with these characters but the atrocities they lived through were too hard to imagine.

Vaddey Ratner
Image via the author’s website

The time Raami and her family spent living in the Buddhist temple was my favorite in retrospect. They knew something worse was coming, but they were able to be together as a family and love each other. There was a sense of foreboding and this was when Raami started to realize that their situation wasn’t temporary and it wasn’t going to go back to normal. Her voice started being less childlike and more mature which helped me enjoy the story more.

A lot of the book was hard to read because it was so dark. I didn’t dislike it because it was bad or inconsistent, I just couldn’t read it because of the content. The time spent building the riverbank was horrible. It was like reading a Holocaust memoir to hear about the conditions the people lived in and what they were forced to endure. Every page, I expected another tragedy and became less surprised when they came.

This is a book about survival. By merit of it being about a child, you assume that Raami will survive. But what she will endure and if anyone will make it through with her are the key questions. The lengths her mother goes to are extreme but necessary in their world. It made me think about what it means to be a mother and love someone the way Aana loved Raami.

Writer’s Takeaway: The one thing I didn’t like about the book was the childish point of view at the beginning. It kept me distant from Raami and her concerns for longer than the author intended and made the book one I struggled to sit down with initially. I can’t blame Ratner for my inability to read such about such horrible conditions. If they’re true and that’s what happened, I’m glad she wrote it the way she did.

Overall, an important book but not one I’m going to rush to recommend. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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