“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his. (…) Each day before dawn Papa would go out for a solitary stroll, and returning an hour or so later he would bring back with him the sights and sounds of the city, from which would emerge the poems he read aloud to me. This morning, though, it seemed he came back as soon as he’d stepped out, for dawn had just arrived and the feel of night had yet to dissipate. Silence trailed his every step like the remnant of a dream long after waking.”
In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, who is witness to the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Up to the start of the story, Raami has grown up in a world of royal privilege: her family is rich, her Grandmother is addressed as Queen by the members of her family, and her father is a poet. All of which, of course, is frowned upon by the revolutionaries. Raami’s family is swept away from their home and placed at several detainment and labour camps. In the Shadow of the Banyan traces Raami’s experiences during these four years, as she struggles to understand what is happening to her life and her country, and as she faces loss, hunger, brutality, and fights for her survival.
This is by no means an easy book to read. On the contrary, it was quite difficult. Not that it is badly written, because it is not. But you just know you are in for heartbreak and confrontation with the ugliness of humanity when you pick up a novel about the Khmer Rouge regime. There were quite a few heartbreaking scenes, a few that had me wanting to look away because of the horror of knowing that this were human beings treating other human beings cruelly, and a few that had me crying while reading this in bed at night. The strange thing is, and perhaps this makes the novel so readable and beautiful, that in choosing to narrate the country’s history from the perspective of a child, the story also manages to evoke an appreciation for human perseverance in the middle of all these horrors, without making light of the horrors she witnesses.
Raami is the true gem of In the Shadow of the Banyan. She’s an amazing character that you can’t help but feel deeply for. At times she retains a certain distance to the cruelties that she describes, and sometimes she can be quite naive. There are moments when she hardly realises what is happening. But is not that exactly how a child would react? And sometimes, the very fact that this is a story of a child who is used to living closely with her parents and extended family, and subsequently witnesses how her family is torn apart by a regime, makes the cruelties all the more immediate. It is the very achievement of making such an inhuman episode in history so very human through Raami’s eyes that I enjoyed about this novel.
Another aspect I appreciated was that Raami, having been raised on her father’s poems and stories, tries to understand the world around her through the images she retained from these stories. In a way, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an homage to the support that can be found in stories in any kind of situation.
There was one drawback to the prominence of poetry and stories in this novel, which, in a way, related to two separate aspects. On the one hand, while I liked and appreciated the beauty of Ratner’s style (and it was beautiful!), I felt the language could get a little too poetic at times. I would have liked to witness some scenes in which poetry was left behind to make it more direct. More so than this first aspect, I felt that the words used by Raami, and the observations as she links them to her father’s story, at times seemed a little artificial for a child of seven. Would a child of that age really have talked and thought like she did? After reading an interview with Ratner where she states that a child in such circumstances (because in essence, this is Ratner’s personal story) would have to grow up quicker than you could imagine, I wonder if I can really be the judge of how a child would shape his or her thoughts. Nevertheless, I feel it is only fair to mention that I had doubts on this count for at least part of the novel.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautiful book about a horrible situation. I am pretty sure that it won’t be part of my “top 10 reads of 2012″, but I do know that it made me think. The novel might not provide an overview of the history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and if that is what you are looking for you will need to look for another book. However, it does lend a human face to an episode in the history of the world. And in doing so it made that episode all the more immediate for me. It made me want to learn more in a way that a historical overview might not have done. Sure, it was confronting and hard to read at times. But by the end I felt I had truly taken something away by reading this book, and I truly appreciate it for doing that. And it helped me to confront again, as Three Strong Women did last month, how I need to be open to reading about such situations more, even if I sometimes prefer to hide in a more comfortable fictional world.