While it fits well with my around the world reading challenge goals, In the Shadow of the Banyan is also one of the books I chose for myself as a Christmas book this winter; I don’t even remember how I found it, but I was attracted to the unfamiliar setting of Cambodia and a historical moment I know little about as well. I’m so glad I took a risk on this debut author’s moving narrative of loss and turmoil in a beautiful but devastated country.
The era of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in Cambodia is murky at best; we as a country have told ourselves many more narratives about our involvement in Vietnam than we have about our involvement in neighboring Cambodia, which endured years of civil war, extensive bombing by the US, and invasion by Vietnam all in conjunction with the Khmer Rouge’s version of Communism. Banyan tells the story of Raami, a child in a family evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began its campaign to turn Cambodians into “revolutionary peasants.” This formerly royal family begins a terrifying odyssey across the Cambodian countryside, facing starvation, forced labor, torture, death and enforced separation along the way. Vaddey Ratner, the author, experienced similar deprivation as a child escaping the advent of the Khmer Rouge, and this authenticity brings another emotional layer to the experience of reading the narrator’s struggles.
What I really loved about Banyan is how Ratner evokes the poetry and beauty of Cambodia’s culture and landscape, even while she is depicting the destruction of its people. Raami’s father is a well-known poet, and his poetry and thoughtful conversations with Raami are one of the many ways Ratner helps the reader see the power of language and storytelling, even in the harshest circumstances. Unfortunately, Cambodia is only one of many former European colonies that have suffered turmoil and despair in the following decades, but Banyan makes its story distinct in its tragic loveliness.