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In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Published by Simon & Schuster on August 7, 2012

The banyan tree in the courtyard represented a place of safety in war-torn Cambodia for seven-year-old Raami and the royal family to which she belongs -- at least it did until the Khmer Rouge chased the family members from their home.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers are in the vanguard of a “revolution” that, in the mid-1970s, turns Raami’s family into refugees.  Raami’s father, Ayuravann, is a prince and a poet, her grandmother is a queen, but these distinctions merely put the family at greater risk than the displaced peasants they soon join.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a stirring account of Raami’s young life under the control of the Khmer Rouge.  The Khmer Rouge leaders do not want any Cambodian to remain rooted; individuals must be replanted, must take on new lives in service to the Revolution.  When her family is divided and forced to relocate to a rural village, Raami begins her life anew, concealing her past and watching as friends and relatives -- the ones who aren’t killed by soldiers -- die of malnutrition and disease.  Having been stricken with polio in early childhood, Raami’s limp saves her from the arduous labor to which most villagers are assigned, but nothing can spare her the grief of loss or the pain of hunger.

Vaddey Ratner’s novel is rooted in her own experience as a child in Cambodia.  It tells an emotionally intense story of courage and sacrifice.  While the story is often tragic, rebirth and transformation are the novel’s strongest themes.  Another striking theme is the commonality of man, the shared dignity of rich and poor, royalty and peasant.   “We are all echoes of one another,” Ayuravaan tells Raami, a truth the novel vividly illustrates.

Images of hope and beauty balance the despair that pervades the story. Despite the devastation she must endure daily, Raami never forgets that she is surrounded by beauty. She discovers that a momentary glimpse of the commonplace -- a dragonfly in flight -- can turn the ordinary into something beautiful. “We are capable of extraordinary beauty if we dare to dream,” says Auyravaan as he encourages Raami to dream of flight, to soar with spreading wings, to overcome her disability and the external strictures that govern her life. Although similar metaphors often descend into cheesiness in the hands of uninspired writers, Ratner avoids crossing that line by anchoring her story in truth while avoiding artistic manipulation.

The novel’s imagery is astonishing.  A farmer carves a calf from wood to hang around a cow’s neck, not to replace the mourning cow’s dead calf but “to give shape to her sorrow” -- the kind of sorrow Raami comes to understand all too well.  Recurring images -- serpents, birds in flight, the moon, gardens, mirthful spirits, an epic poem called Reamker, and (of course) banyan trees -- give shape and context to Cambodian life, connecting past to present.  So do the charming folk tales the characters tell each other.

Despite the well-documented atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, Ratner writes of individual “revolutionaries” with perception:  they are often just kids, too immature to understand the consequences of their behavior, following the Movement only because it is easier to carry a gun than to push a plow.  Big Uncle says they are “like boys playing war.”  They are illiterate, resentful of the educated, unaware of the “cause” their revolution supposedly intends to achieve.  They glorify violence to mask their own ignorance.  Given her experiences, it is a tribute to Ratner that she writes of them with such understanding.

Ratner is a graceful writer.  Her sentences flow with balletic precision.  Her word choice is impeccable.  Even if the story had been less captivating, I would recommend this novel for the beauty of its prose.  Every now and then Ratner includes a word in Raami’s native language.  Its meaning is usually apparent from the context, but even when its meaning is obscure, Ratner resists the temptation to interrupt the narrative flow with an English translation.  That might bother some readers but I’m more bothered by writers who can’t use a foreign word without immediately supplying an English translation.

In short, this is a stunning work, a powerful story skillfully told.  Although grounded in Ratner’s personal experience, it reads like the product of a seasoned novelist.


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