Updated on August 5, 2015
20. ‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’ by Vaddey Ratner
From beauty to ugliness, joy to suffering, wealth to poverty and art to chaos: ‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’ is the story of what happens to an aristocratic Cambodian family, during the time of the Communist revolution and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. I really didn’t know much about this part of history, so this book really opened my eyes to the atrocities that happened in Cambodia, against the backdrop of wider world politics. At times the story reminded me of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Empire of the Sun’ – both utterly brilliant films.
The book is told from the perspective of a little girl, Raami, the daughter of a prince who is forced from her palatial home with her family when the Communists take over. The early descriptions in this book are gorgeous: the family home is a tropical Eden and, at first, the setting is limited to the walled enclosure of the house and grounds. The first time the reader sees outside these walls, the city is in the midst of the turmoil of the revolution. It’s a striking contrast and a very effective narrative technique.
Raami is only seven, and I found myself struggling with this as I read. Occasionally characters would say things in front of her that I thought people would never say in front of a seven year old. I felt she should have been older, especially during some of her more poetic and philosophical trains of thought. The story is largely autobiographical and, in the interview at the end of this edition, Ratner says that she was a couple of years younger than Raami when these things happened to her. Interestingly she made Raami a little older than she was, to allow her to have a slightly wiser and more perceptive voice.
There is a strong theme of uncertainty running throughout the story. Characters are uprooted and moved around almost arbitrarily, the idea being that people can’t rebel if they’re split up from their families and kept constantly on the move. I liked not knowing what happened to certain characters, because that was the reality of the situation. I love unanswered questions in my books, and this novel is full of them.
This did feel like a debut novel. Just occasionally I felt the writing was not entirely confident, a little off-key, and occasionally confused. However, these moments paled in comparison to the plot: some parts had me literally open-mouthed with shock (like what happens to Raami’s sister; if you read it you’ll see what I mean). ‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’ is both a shocking and a brilliant story.
From the interview with Ratner:
“When I returned to live in Cambodia with my husband and daughter, one of the first things I did was to surround our new home with flowers I remembered from my childhood home. […] A couple of years later, we bought a piece of land in Siem Reap and built a house there, which for me was very therapeutic, a wilful act to counter the destruction I had witnessed helplessly as a child.”
This is the first galley proof I requested from NetGalley, a site ‘for professional readers’. They sent it to my Kindle, ahead of the publication date (7th August) – fantastic!
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?