Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

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.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

2018 Reading Challenges: Part Two

As the year winds down, I found two more reading challenges for 2018. I’m not sure I’ll sign up for further challenges, except for the R.I.P. Challenge, which I participate in nearly every year.

Foodies Read ChallengeThe next challenge that caught my eye is the Foodies Read Challenge. I have been trying to do more cooking and do more reading about food, and this challenge will help me meet that goal. The challenge rules state that “[a]ny book where food is a main part of the plot is welcome,” including cookbooks. I have lots of nonfiction reading about food I’ve wanted to do for a while, and this challenge will encourage me to get going. I have also been collecting cookbooks for a few years now, and reading and trying more of the recipes in the cookbooks is sometimes a challenge. I tell myself I don’t have time. But I do have time if I make it. I’m always saying that we make time for things we value. I haven’t made much time for cooking in the past. Let’s face it: cooking is time-consuming. But the food is so much better, and I can control every single thing about it. Here’s hoping I can make this a New Year’s Resolution, with the support of my family. In any case, it’s a big money saver. The important thing is to plan meals, and despite setting up systems that should have helped me with this aspect of cooking, I have not been good about maintaining those systems.

Share a Tea ChallengeThe final challenge is the Share-a-Tea Reading Challenge. I love tea. I love reading. The demands of this challenge are few: simply read good books and enjoy good tea. However, the emphasis on sharing means growing my blog reading list (and my book reading list) as well as my tea-drinking list. I love flavored black teas. My favorite “every day” sort of flavored black tea is Earl Grey, or Lady Grey if I can find it. I commit the cardinal sin of putting a bit of milk in it, which I understand is simply not done, but I like it that way. I love the Literary Teas at Simpson & Vail and have ordered them a few times. My favorite one is the Brontë Sisters Tea. This challenge might offer some great opportunities to sample more tea.