In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is about a gentle girl in a brutal country. While the book is fictional, its roots exist in the author’s own life. This enhances the intimacy of the tale. Young Raami is only seven when civil war overwhelms Cambodia. As a result, her family’s royal privilege fades away quickly.
As the book progresses and Raami ages, we see her reality in greater detail. She matures quickly, but always stays connected to her childlike sense of wonder at stories and language. This attitude comes from her father, who is both a poet and a prince. Ratner amplifies this detail in the poetic language she uses, even in her descriptions of unspeakable horror.
And yes, Raami lives through countless difficult events. She learns what a communist organization believes, from food rationing to hard physical labor, as well as the impact of neighbors mistrusting neighbors.
Throughout all of these moments of tragic difficulty, Ratner weaves the stories that Raami craves. She never forgets the stories her father told her during her early childhood. And whenever she meets someone offering a new story, Raami encourages them. This way, she becomes a repository of myths and legends from Cambodia before the war. This practice also helps her cope with the darkness of the Khmer Rouge.
Sometimes when a book’s protagonist is quite young, their attitude is entirely childish. But Raami seems like an “old soul” despite her limited years of life. And that endeared me to her. As with most kids, her impulsive actions frustrate the adults around her. Thus, Ratner effectively straddles the balance of Raami’s increasing maturity.
The history of Cambodia in the 1970s during the Khmer Republic isn’t told often. There are iconic tellings, like the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, which is absolutely emotionally brutal. But now Ratner offers another iconic story of the time. Telling it through Raami’s eyes adds gentleness to the intensity and that makes absorbing the novel a bit easier.
Raami’s family expresses great love for each other, and this warmth underpins her childhood both before and after the war starts. Ratner reminds us continuously of love’s value, especially in times of conflict and struggle.
I recommend In the Shadow of the Banyan if you appreciate coming-of-age books with invaluable insights into life in a unique setting.
Pair with What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz, set in neighboring Thailand around the same time.