This is undoubtedly a very fine novel, bearing witness to one of the most appallingly cruel periods of history in living memory. Authentic and crafted with language as delicate as woven gossamer, it is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a mother’s love for her daughter.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a breathtaking novel of exquisite lyrical beauty, based on the author’s own life and experience, as seen through the eyes of seven year old Raami. Her secure, privileged world, full of love and beauty, is shattered when the Khmer Rouge seizes power in Cambodia in 1975.
Chaos ensues as ignorant, incompetent youths kill at will and without cause, full of hate and spite for anyone educated or qualified in any way whatsoever. Forced to flee their homes and resettled in uncertain and degrading conditions, city dwellers are “re-educated” to serve the “Organisation.”
Monks, doctors, teachers and professionals of any kind are hunted down tortured and killed – punished for being undesirably intellectual, even for merely having the ability to read and write. In this climate of fear and oppression, innumerable lives are irreparably damaged by this inhumane regime inflicting suffering beyond comprehension. Families are wrenched apart and decimated. Many are forced to watch their loved ones brutally murdered and the mental scars run deeper than the physical suffering.
Raami’s story is about survival and endurance. Crippled by polio, she had always considered herself second-best compared with her perfect baby sister. Guilt torments her when she unwittingly reveals her father’s true identity as a member of the royal family, not realising, in her innocence, that it meant certain death for him. Her father gives himself up willingly to draw attention away from his family and his sacrifice leaves a gaping hole in their lives. Her guilt is compounded when she feels responsible for her baby sister’s death from malaria, having forgotten to protect her with a mosquito net.
However, in the midst of enduring immense deprivation, degradation and hardship in the labour camps, Raami comes to the realisation that she has never, in fact, ever been second-best in the eyes of her parents. She finally appreciates the depth of her mother’s love for her and the strength of her mother’s determination that Raami should survive and not die.
Not physically strong, Raami is sustained only by remembered stories from childhood and poetry that transcends the horror enabling glimpses of beauty and heaven despite the heartache. She copes with the pain and suffering of losing those she loves by seeking escape in their solace. Words have the power to give her, handicapped as she is, metaphorical wings to escape the horrors, however fleetingly. A work of outstanding merit in every way, a much, much recommended read.
About Vaddey Ratner
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan. She lives in Potomac, Maryland in the United States.
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Title: In the Shadow of the Banyan
Author: Vaddey Ratner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
RRP: $29.99 AUD
Publication Date: August 2012