Tuesday 14 August 2012

In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Raami is a seven year old girl living happily with her extended family in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, when a revolutionary group called the Khmer Rouge uproot them from everything.  Forced out of the capital, Raami and her family are moved from village to village, place to place, brutalised everywhere they go.  They are separated from loved ones and forced to work all hours on massive construction projects doomed to failure.  Private cooking is banned and farmers made to plant rice out of season, leading to mass starvation and disease.  Fear is everywhere as the Khmer Rouge are on the hunt for enemies and Raami must hide her connections to the disposed royal family. One by one, Raami's family members succumb to death and Raami has to fight for even the smallest chance of survival in an increasingly violent world.

In the Shadow of the Banyan makes grim reading at times.  The author grew up in the killing fields and explains in the afterword that Raami doesn't go through anything that she herself didn't experience as a child.  And there's so much suffering in this book - murder, starvation, exhaustion, disease, horror, fear, all of it is there.  Ratner doesn't shy away from the darker side of Cambodian history, but puts it all there on the page and it's impossible as a reader to not feel completely horrified at the atrocities.  I've read about genocides and the Chinese 'Great Leap Forward' (which the history in this book reminded me of), but it's rare to come across such a hard-hitting account of tragedy as this.  Raami is so relatable that you almost feel as though you are suffering alongside her.

But despite all of this, Ratner somehow manages to balance suffering with enough hope and beauty to make the story bearable.  There are glimpses of people still caring for each other, of a young boy collecting snails to feed to his starving sister, of Raami's mother giving up her portion of food so Raami can stay alive, of the kindness of strangers.  Cambodia itself is described in lush, colourful terms that also help to give the book some balance; the green rice paddies, bright flowers and in the beginning, the jewel coloured saris of the women and saffron robes of the monks.  Even though the events of the book are horrific, you can sense the love Ratner has for Cambodia.

Choosing to narrate the book through the eyes of a seven year old child was always going to be a risk and at times Raami does seem too knowing, especially concerning the relationships between adult family members and their thought processes.  But on the other hand it mirrors the naivety of the reader and allows Ratner to tell the story without getting bogged down in politics, it's just a human story.  Raami is forced to grow up quickly through the book and the contrast between her character in the beginning and at the end is realistic.  From the beginning, I was completely invested in Raami as a character and desperate for her to find some happiness.

I loved In the Shadow of the Banyan.  It may cover a difficult topic but it's an important one for us as human beings and Ratner's writing is simply beautiful.  Highly recommended.

"I had learned not to be afraid of owls or other night creatures.  Animals are not like people.  If you leave them alone, they won't hurt you.  But people will, even if you've done no wrong.  They hurt you with their guns, their words, their lies and broken promises, their sorrow."

Source: From the publisher via NetGalley.
First Published: 2012
Score: 5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Dreams of Joy by Lisa See - Dreams of Joy is set in China during the Great Leap Forward but there are many links with the Cambodian history in In the Shadow of the Banyan; Communist leaders, forced collectivisation, inefficient commands leading to mass starvation.  This is hard hitting too.
2. Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire - This is an account of the Rwandan genocide by the UN Commander, General Romeo Dallaire.  Although he does everything he can to stop the killing, he is not enabled to act.  Read pre-blogging.
3. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway - There are no historical links here (Cellist is set in Europe whilst Sarajevo is under seige), but it's another account of the human condition under terrible situations which is beautifully written.


  1. I've had this on my reading radar for a while, Sam and your glowing review has convinced me to get this asap. Sounds like my kind of book! Thanks for a great review.

    1. This is definitely your kind of book, I think it's one you will find as powerful as I did. Look forward to your thoughts on it :)

  2. Ever since I heard this book a few days ago I wanted to read this. I am glad you love it so much, now it must definitely, absolutely must go into my TBR list! Thanks!

    1. Jo, judging by the kind of books you normally read, this is one that you will enjoy (in so far as you can enjoy a book about the killing fields). I hope you get a chance to read it.

  3. You can see that you did a lot of work for this review.
    Nicely done.

    Mike Draper

  4. I gave this book a five too!

  5. Even though it's so hard to read about events like these, it's worth it in some way. I read a memoir last year written by a girl who grew up under the Khmer Rouge too - it's heartbreaking what happened to so many people and the many children who suffered through it.

  6. Great review! Sadly I experienced that many young Cambodians are unaware of their horrible history when I was in Cambodia. When I told them I went to visit a Killing Field near Phnom Phen some didn't know what I was talking about...
    I am going to get me a copy of this book right now.