You are about to read an extraordinary story. 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 Cambodia 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
This story is at once brutal and beautiful.
Raami and her family are Cambodian royals who are forced to flee their home during the Khmer Rouge Communist regime of 1975, where an estimated two million people lost their lives. After Raami makes one awful mistake by exposing her family, they are separated and she quickly learns that in order to survive, they must hide their true identities. All around her, she witnesses the worst kinds of suffering and loss, yet in the middle of it all, she recalls the beauty of her father's poetry. Her father's poetry is like music, and something that no one can take away from her. It is her lifeline, her sanity, her connection to a father she may never see again.
Parts of this book are horrific and brutality graphic, yet Ratner finds a way to save us from falling into a dark place - much like Raami fights her way from the brink of insanity by clinging to her father's poetry. Too much for any seven year old to bear witness, too much for anyone, this is a time of history of which I was unaware before reading IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN. It made it all the more powerful when I learned that this book is based on the author's own experience.
The author herself lived through this tragic time in history, and this story is loosely based on her life. In the 1980s, the author and her mother arrived in the United States to begin a new life.
A Note On The Audio: Greta Lee's voice is perfection! The novel flowed beautifully on the audio, and even though the book is read from a seven year old's point of view, the reader's voice never became too young or distracting. I can't quite find the word to descrive Greta Lee's voice, but it is unique. When I finished listening to this audio, the first thing I did was search for more of Greta Lee's books. (more, please!!)
Vaddey Ratner gifts to her readers a labour of love. More than a novel, more than a memoir, more than an anthology of poetry, IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN is unlike anything I have ever read and will stay with me for some time.
"I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything..."
Simon and Schuster Page (book club resources, excerpt, etc.)
About the Audiobook:
by Vaddey Ratner (Author), Greta Lee (Narrator)
About the Book:
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. In 1981 she arrived in the United States as a refugee not knowing English and ultimately went on to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell University. She lives in Potomac, Maryland