Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Khmer Rouge, through the eyes of a child

In the Shadow of the Banyan
In the Shadow of the Banyan was a book that I stupidly chose to read in fairly public places - on planes, trains, and buses.  This was not a great decision because it's very difficult to read this book with dry eyes.  It's also very hard not to continue reading this  book once you've started, and so I just tried to sniffle very quietly and discreetly into my tissues and everyone around me politely pretended not to notice.

In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner, is set during the Cambodian civil war of the 1970s.  We first meet our narrator, Raami, living a charmed life as a royal princess on an idyllic estate in Phnon Penh.  But very quickly, revolution comes and Raami's family must leave their home to go become workers in the country.  This is especially difficult for Raami as she suffered from polio as a baby and has difficulty walking.  It's also difficult for her royal father, who believes in the ideals of the revolution but must hide his identity for his family's safety.  He makes a sacrifice that most can't understand and that his family finds it difficult to forget.  As Raami is shuffled from one place to another, connecting with some people and completely dissociating herself from others, working long, hard hours and slowly starving, we see the Cambodian civil war in all its terrible reality, and learn the power that stories can have to lift us away from our lives.

I cannot believe that this is Ratner's first novel, and in her second language, no less.  The writing was absolutely stunning.  Imagery fills every page, imagery of flight and heroes and sacrifice and love.  There are beautiful poems to break through the drudgery and pain of everyday living.  And so many amazing characters.  There is Raami herself, of course, introspective and lonely for most of the book as she sees society fall apart around her.  And her mother, one of the strongest and most resourceful women I've read about in some time, who works tirelessly for her daughter.  And Raami's father, the poet prince, who stands for everything that is lost in the revolution - culture and beauty and happy times.  And so many others who exemplify generosity and kindness of spirit, or hopelessness and despair.

Obviously, any book about civil war and revolution and genocide is not easy to read.  And this book is about all those things.  But it's also about the bonds that can grow and strengthen between people, about the different kinds of sacrifice that parents and lovers choose to make for the people who matter most to them, and about all of the ways that humans have of surviving hardship and making the most of what they have, all of the stories we tell ourselves about the heroes that came before and the beauty that they saw in our flawed, imperfect world.  Absolutely beautiful - I hope you give it a try.

15 comments:

  1. It's really interesting to read this review, because I absolutely hated In the Shadow of the Banyan. Hated. From your review, it honestly feels as though we read different books. I won't get into the myriad of reasons I so disliked the book here, but... just funny to see such a wide opinion gap. Ah well, this is what makes life so interesting!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, wow! I'll have to read your review for sure. I completely understand what you mean, though, about reading a review of a book you have read and then wondering if the person had a totally different book than you did.

      Delete
    2. Oh, so interesting! I'll look for your review. I know exactly what you mean, though, about reading reviews of books like this. Sometimes I wonder if I just got a COMPLETELY different book than another person did!

      Delete
  2. Note taken. Do not read in public places, cos ├Żes I am a crier

    ReplyDelete
  3. I can imagine the difficulty in reading this in public; it's such a demanding tale and, yet, an impressive debut; I resisted reading it for quite some time, but ultimately the sense of community that develops as the story moves along is so touching that I remember those parts of the story as vividly as some of the more harrowing scenes, now that some time has passed since reading. Another harrowing debut that I really admired was Yiyun Li's The Vagrants; the feelings evoked are similar, but the content and the authors' styles are markedly different.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll definitely look into The Vagrants - thanks for bringing it to my attention! Though it may take me a little time to get to it. Can only do with so much emotional exhaustion!

      Delete
  4. I've seen this title a few places and been a bit on the fence, but considering how much I trust your recommendation, I think I'm definitely going to pick it up now.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't know if I have the stomach for this one -- I find books about children starving in particular hard to read. But it sounds like a fantastic treatment of a difficult topic.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I've heard about this book a lot and it piqued my interest before I forgot about it (similar colour scheme on the cover to a few others I was looking at). It sounds a difficult read but at the same time very good and with some positive aspects that would be great to read about.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I heard about this book at BEA last year, I think, and it sounded really good. I'm glad to see it lives up to the hype!

    ReplyDelete
  8. This one's waiting patiently on my Kindle. Sounds like I need to be reading it soon...but not in public! LOL. Glad to hear it's as good as it looks. =D

    ReplyDelete
  9. Nothing like reading a review of a book that was loved. Maybe that should be a review rule....Only raves? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Here's my It's Monday.

    ReplyDelete
  10. You make me want to drop everything and read this book, Aarti. It sounds like quite a powerful book.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The title of this book seems familiar although not the author. I don't know much about this period except from what I've read online so it's definitely something I'd like to read. But not in public!

    ReplyDelete

I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.