Saturday, September 15, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

by Vaddey Ratner, Simon & Shuster, August 2012 
...the characters jump off of the page and into your heart.

This lyrical story is told from the viewpoint of Raami, a seven year old girl when the Khmer Rouge enter the capital of Cambodia and set up a new government in 1975.  Cambodia had been ruled for centuries by a monarchy whose members included Raami’s father a prince.  Raami and her father, who is a poet, have a very close relationship.  He teaches her using myths and stories set in the Buddhist tradition.  Raami recounts the events of this nightmare as they unfold for her family and the Cambodian people.  Initially the revolutionaries are seen as progressive intellectuals but soon become violent and unstable in their actions.  Raami’s family, her parents, younger sister, grandmother, uncle, aunts and two young cousins are made to leave their comfortable home in Phnom Penh.  Carrying very little they retreat to another home outside of the city.  As with all of the people of Cambodia their nightmare has just begun.  Over the next four years of the Khmers’ rule horrific things occur.  Loss of life is commonplace, hunger moving into starvation is the norm, uprooting and moving people occurs frequently and life as was known is almost entirely lost.  Spread throughout these horrors are stories of people who act very humanely in the face of this evil.  All of these events are seen through Raami’s eyes and told in her words.  Her father is separated from the family early in the story and Raami is deeply affected by his absence.  His memory and stories sustain her and her mother through their trials.   

This is my second genocide novel this month.  My last read was The Sand Castle Girls which dealt with the genocide in Armenia in 1915.  This book is very different and much more memorable.  In the Sand Castle Girls the story was well documented with historical events and detail interspersed throughout the story but the characters were fairly one dimensional.  In this story the characters jump off of the page and into your heart.  Seen from a child’s point of view this story lacks the historical detail that I enjoy but the depth of feeling expressed more than makes up for this.  I defy you to forget these people after you have read the section where Raami digs through the mud looking for beetles to eat because she is starving.  

While the book is fiction the story closely parallels the experience of the author, Vaddey Ratner who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital.  She lost most of her family in the next four years and ended up as a refugee in the US in 1981.   I hung on every word of the author interview at the end of the book.  There are many remarkable things about this story but one of them is that the author was able to tell such a moving, poetic story in English.  By 1995 she had graduated summa cum laude from Cornell – surely there is another book in this refugee success story.  Ratner was quoted as saying she wrote this fictional memoir to “give voice to her father’s memory and the memory of all of the others who were silenced”.  She has done this and much more, highly recommended.

I read an advanced readers copy of the novel provided by the publisher.


Zibilee said...

I really want to read this one, and have heard great things about it. I haven't read Sandcastle Girls yet, so I am pretty unschooled with a lot of the stories of genocide, but since you have mentioned that this one is better, I think I will start here. Excellent review today. I need to grab this one when I can!

Julie said...

I want this one! I've wanted it since I first saw it! Thanks for the wonderful review!