Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan

Summary: 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. -- Simon & Schuster

There were many books that I discovered at this year's BEA, but I think the one that gathered the most buzz was IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN by Vaddey Ratner. I recently read this book and it's no wonder that people are talking about this novel. It's an absolutely amazing piece of literature, and I don't say that lightly. This story that takes place in this novel is just incredible, and the writing is equally wonderful. It's a must-read book, and one that has the power to change readers' lives.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN tells the story of Raami, a seven year old girl whose life is forever changed when Cambodia's civil war begins and her family is forced to evacuate by the Khmer Rouge. The story follows Raami, and what remains of her family, over the next four years as they battle to survive in the face of an oppressive and, often times, violent regime. Through all of the loss and anguish (both physical and mental), Raami holds on to the powerful memories of her father as well as the myths and stories he told her.

You might notice that I didn't give very many details about what occurs in this novel. That's because I think this is truly one of those cases where it's best left to discover what happens to Raami, her family, and her beloved country as you read the story. I have to warn you that this novel affected me deeply -- both because I couldn't stand what these people went through and also because I was deeply amazed by Raami's spirit.

I hesitate to even admit this to you, but I really wasn't aware of just how destructive the Khmer Rouge was (of course, now I have to see The Killing Fields.) I was in absolute awe of what Raami's family (and millions of others) experienced and there were many times that I wanted to weep (not just cry) as I read this story. It's almost unfathomable to me that events like this can occur in our world... and to think, it was in my lifetime -- not hundreds or thousands of years ago. Truly remarkable.

What makes the story of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN even more extraordinary is that it is based on the author's actual life. They are calling this story a novel, but it appears that a great deal of it is what Ms. Ratner remembers from her childhood. She changed her age by a few years and her father's occupation, but so much of this story is Ms. Ratner's; and to me, that makes this book even more special.

I would certainly be remiss if I didn't discuss mention Ms. Ratner's writing style -- it's absolutely, positively beautiful. I could go on and on about how gorgeous her prose is, but once again, it's best if you experience it on your own. What really impressed me was how she brought her homeland to life with her vivid descriptions -- she managed to portray Cambodia as a land of beauty despite the horrors that were being afflicted on its people and the destruction of the the country.

In addition, the author did a wonderful job of sharing so much about the lore of Cambodia through the use of Raami's father's poetry and myths. Normally, I'm not a big fan of books that include so many stories "inside" the overall story; however, I thought these myths worked well for a number of reasons. First of all, it gave the reader an understanding of Raami's father as well as their close relationship. In addition, it showed how rich Cambodia's literary culture was served as a tribute to the country's verbal artists. And finally, the characters in these myths symbolized so much about Raami's struggles and her perseverance to survive.

What truly stood out to me about IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN was the character of Raami. She is just an incredible young girl and this novel was her coming-of-age story. The horrors and atrocities that she not only saw, but experienced, were gut-wrenching and eventually caused Raami to become mute -- just like the author. However, Raami was such a wonderful little girl and she had so much courage that she managed to survive and even thrive-- just like the author. Her story is a huge testament to the strength of the individual and the power of love, family, and memories.

Of course, IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN would make an outstanding book club selection; and I have a feeling that many book clubs will be discussing this novel over the next year or so. There is a reading guide with seventeen questions. Some of the topic that you will want to discuss include love, war, family, loss, grief, the power of stories, mother/daughter relationships, memories, and survival. I can guarantee that your meeting will be a serious one, with the potential for tears, but I think that so much of this novel is worth discussing and remembering.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN wasn't always an easy read for me, but it was well worth the effort. There is no doubt that this story is heartbreaking, but the spirit of the author (and her father) shine through these pages and make it an extremely powerful (and yes, even uplifting) read.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Serena said...

This is a book that's been on my radar for some time...the Rouge and Pol Pot were very very my opinion....I'm looking forward to grabbing a copy of this book at some point.

bermudaonion said...

Books like this are difficult emotionally, but I love to read them. I recently listened to First They Killed My Father, which is about the Khmer Rouge as well, and literally sobbed as I listened. I'm looking forward to reading this book. Your review is wonderful.

Karlie said...

You must be reading a lot of good books right now! This book sounds like a powerful one.

Beth Kephart said...

Loved this one, too. I did an interview with Vaddey for Publishing Perspectives — and it's truly, truly beautiful (what she says, how she says it). It's here, if you are interested:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I still haven't gotten over The Killing Fields and I saw it a million years ago, so I don't think I could read this!

Alyce said...

I have been hearing very good things about this book! I know I've read at least one memoir of those events, but I don't remember the name of it. In any case I do think I want to read this book, but I know I'll really need to be in the right mood mentally to tackle it.