In the Shadow of the Banyan
August 2012 Indie Next List
— Caitlin Caufiled, Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA
View the List
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.
Praise For In the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel…
“How is it that so much of this bleak novel is full of beauty, even joy? . . . What is remarkable, and honorable, here is the absence of anger, and the capacity—seemingly infinite—for empathy.”
“The horrors committed by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, as experienced by one extremely resilient girl. A brutal novel, lyrically told.”
“Lyrical . . . a love story to her homeland and an unflinching account of innocents caught in the crossfire of fanaticism.”
“A tale of perseverance, hope and the drive toward life.”
“Humanity . . . shines through in her storytelling.”
“For all the atrocities witnessed and hardships experienced, Ratner’s story is filled to an even larger extent with opportunism and beauty. Ratner’s gift is her exquisite descriptions of the careful details of daily life . . . Ratner describes her desire to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art. She has done just that; hers is a beautiful tale with considerable poetry and restraint. In the Shadow of the Banyan is an important novel, written by a survivor with unexpected grace and eloquence.”
“The powerful story of how even the most brutal regime lacked the power of a father’s love for his daughter.”
“Gorgeous . . . Ratner bears witness to the unyielding human spirit.”
“One of those brave novels of resilience and the power of love that surface once or twice in a generation, like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.”
"Although Ratner provides a glimpse into what was going on in the country, this is Raami's story. Her personality and experience gives the novel its power. . . . Although she doesn't shy away from violence, loss and grief, she pays equal attention to small moments of compassion and natural beauty."
“Vaddey Ratner's debut novel bears witness to the atrocities of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and is not an easy read, but it captures the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.”
“Ratner’s engrossing presentation of this tragedy is a remarkable achievement. This is one of those novels that lead writers like me to believe that real truth is best found in fiction.”
“This stunning memorial expresses not just the terrors of the Khmer Rouge but also the beauty of what was lost. A hauntingly powerful novel imbued with the richness of old Cambodian lore, the devastation of monumental loss, and the spirit of survival.”
“Often lyrical, sometimes a bit ponderous: a painful, personal record of Cambodia’s holocaust.”
“An emotionally moving story . . . This tale of physical and emotional adversity grips readers without delving into the graphic nature of the violence that occurred at the time . . . Ratner's contemplative treatment of her protagonist and the love shared among the family stands in stark contrast to the severe reality they faced each day to survive. Knowing that the story was culled from Ratner's experiences as a child brings a sense of immediacy to this heartrending novel likely to be appreciated by many readers.”
“Her heartrending, mournful tale depicts the horrors of thekilling fields and the senselessness of the violence there while still managing to capture small, beautiful moments…By countering the stark and abject realityof her experience with lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of Cambodia and its people, Ratner has crafted an elegiac tribute to the Cambodia she knewand loved.”
“Vividly told . . . a message of hope and [a] reminder of the depth of human spirit. Stories like this reach deep inside us and are, dare I say, life-changing?”
“Filled with gut-wrenching atrocities, this surprising story will transport you to a tragic time in history and show you how survival can depend on faith in family and memories that give you wings.”
“Evocative, lyrical. . . . Accessible and profoundly moving, In the Shadow of the Banyan is destined to become a classic.”
“Ratner's touching and beautifully written In the Shadow of the Banyan celebrates the human spirit, the power of story and imagination and the triumph of good over evil.”
“In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful acts of storytelling I have ever encountered. . . . This book pulls off the unsettling feat of being—at the same time—utterly heartbreaking and impossibly beautiful. There are some moments in this story that are among the most powerful in literature. This is a masterpiece that takes us to the highs and lows of what human beings can do in this life, and it leaves us, correspondingly, both humbled and ennobled.”
“Vaddey Ratner’s novel is ravishing in its ability to humanize and personalize the Cambodian genocide of the 1970’s. She makes us look unflinchingly at the evil that humankind is capable of, but she gives us a child to hold our hand—an achingly believable child—so that we won’t be overwhelmed. As we have passed from one century of horrors and been plunged into a new century giving us more of the same, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a truly important literary event.”
“‘Words . . . turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical,’ says Vaddey Ratner’s father in her stunning debut novel, and this is exactly what she has accomplished. Ratner has managed to conflate a child’s magical and indomitable hope with the horrific experience of the Khmer Rouge genocide to create a work that at once both deeply wounds and profoundly uplifts. With lyrical and breathtaking prose, Ratner plunges us into the midst of the nightmare that was thrust upon her, and yet, even amidst the darkness of starvation and violence, she never abandons us to despair. She always offers us the glimmering thread of hope and of love. She offers us wings. In a book rich with Buddhist teachings, the mythology of Cambodia, and the natural beauty of her world, Ratner weaves a moving tribute not only to her father and family but to victims of all genocides—past, present, and future.”
“An astonishing book, unlike anything else that has emerged from Cambodia and its tragedies. In contrast to other books dealing with the Khmer Rouge period, this is not a memoir—it is literature, and literature of a high order.”
“A compelling new voice in world literature. Through the coming of age story of a sensitive girl, Ratner dramatizes both the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and the emotional cost of survival.”
Simon & Schuster, 9781451657708, 336pp.
Publication Date: August 7, 2012
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
According to the prophecy that Grandmother Queen tells Raami at the beginning of the novel, “There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree.” What does the prophecy mean to Raami when she first hears it? How does her belief in the prophecy change by the end of the novel? After reading, what does the title of this novel mean to you?
Tata tells Raami, “The problem with being seven—I remember myself at that age—is that you’re aware of so much, and yet you understand so little. So you imagine the worst.” Discuss Raami’s impressions as a seven-year-old. How much is she aware of, and how much (or little) does she understand?
Review the scene in which Raami tells the Kamapibal her father’s real name. How does this serve as a turning point in the novel—what changes forever after this revelation? How does it affect Raami, and her relationship with both Papa and Mama?
Papa tells Raami, “I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.” How does the power of storytelling liberate Raami at different points in the novel?
Compare Mama’s and Papa’s styles of storytelling. When does each parent tell Raami stories, and what role do these stories serve? Which of Papa’s stories did you find most memorable? Which of Mama’s?
Consider Raami and her family’s Buddhist faith. How do their beliefs help them endure life under the Khmer Rouge?
Discuss Raami’s feelings of guilt over losing Papa and Radana. Why does she feel responsible for Papa’s decision to leave the family? For Radana’s death? How does she deal with her own guilt and grief?
What does Big Uncle have in common with Papa, and how do the two brothers differ? How does Big Uncle handle the responsibility of keeping his family together? What ultimately breaks his spirit?
Raami narrates, “my polio, time and again, had proven a blessing in disguise.” Discuss Raami’s disability, and its advantages and disadvantages during her experiences.
Although Raami endures so much hardship in the novel, in some ways she is a typical inquisitive child. What aspects of her character were you able to relate to?
Discuss how the Organization is portrayed in the novel. How does Raami picture the Organization to look, sound, and act? How do the Organization’s policies and strategies evolve over the course of the novel?
Names have a strong significance in the novel. Papa tells Raami he named her Vattaaraami, “Because you are my temple and my garden, my sacred ground, and in you I see all of my dreams.” What does Papa’s own name, Sisowath Ayuravann, mean? What traditions and stories are passed down through these names?
Consider Raami’s stay with Pok and Mae. Discuss what and how both Raami and Mama learn from them, albeit differently. Do you think their stay with Pok and Mae gave them hope?
“Remember who you are,” Mama tells Raami when they settle in Stung Khae. How does Raami struggle to maintain her identity as a daughter, a member of the royal family, and a Buddhist? Why does Mama later change her advice and encourage Raami to forget her identity?
Mama tells Raami after Radana’s death, “I live because of you—for you. I’ve chosen you over Radana.” Discuss Mama’s complicated feelings for her two daughters. Why did Raami assume that Radana was her mother’s favorite, and how does Mama’s story change Raami’s mind?
At the end of the novel, Raami realizes something new about her father’s decision to give himself up to the Kamapibal: “I’d mistaken his words and deeds, his letting go, for detachment, when in fact he was seeking rebirth, his own continuation in the possibility of my survival.” Discuss Papa’s “words and deeds” before he leaves the family. Why did Raami mistake his intentions, and how does she come to realize the truth about him?
How much did you know about the Khmer Rouge before reading In the Shadow of the Banyan? What did you learn?