Raami is “just a spit past seven” in 1975, when the year of the Tiger shifts to the year of the Rabbit.

It is the Khmer New Year, and Raami’s parents disagree about whether it is appropriate to celebrate when there is so much misery and fighting.

Raami is pleased that her mother is insisting on a celebration, and she worships her mother, but she also is the daughter of a poet and “often saw the world through [her] father’s words”.

Her mother’s hair spills upon her like monsoon rain, shadows of the leaves of the banyan tree cover her body like patches of silk: yes, that’s true. But Raami also laps up her soup like a puppy and an inappropriate question erupts from her like a burp.

She is sensitive and cultured; she is sloppy and rude. She is poetic and innocent, and she leads the reader through the story just as the two silhouettes move away in the cover image.

(This book has lingered for months on my TBR pile because I had come across many mentions of the narrative voice interfering with other readers’ enjoyment of this novel, so I paused and approached with trepidation, but I found Vattaaraami’s voice, as the daughter of a poet, believable and enchanting.)

Vaddey Ratner uses figurative language abundantly in In the Shadow of the Banyan. A house is “hot and stuff, like the inside of a balloon”, a woman’s ample figure resembles “an overstuffed burlap rice sack”, laughter is thunderous, like “birds flapping their wings”. Later, “insects moaned over the mound [of compost] as i attending a funeral.”

The prose is complex, but the figurative language suits a child’s perspective. Even in the absence of understanding, Raami’s observations are poignant and credible.

She does not understand, for instance, the shelling, the invasion. She imagines the Khmer Krahom, the Red Khmers, to be like stinging red ants invading the city.

“I wondered at what age one understands everything.”

She has only ever heard talk of Khmers (all Cambodians were Khmers) and this idea of fracture doesn’t fit with her world.

Hers is a world of beetles and scorpions, lotuses and frangipani, spiders and slugs, jasmine and champak blossoms, but suddenly  it is also a world of revolution.

“Chaos. It’s the foundation of all revolutions. This one is just beginning, and I’m not sure what it is. It has yet to be named.”

The gate on her known world closes at the end of the third chapter, and readers follow Raami into the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodia’s history.

“‘You shouldn’t have told them your father’s name,’ Auntie India hissed when it was just us again, her voice accusing — harsh — its melodiousness gone. ‘You shouldn’t have.’ Each word like a finger jabbing my chest.”

Everything that Raami once understood to be true is challenged, overturned; once, she was proud of her family’s name, and now she must conceal it to protect its members, herself included.

“Whichever way I turned, I was faced with the same stark reality — my family was gone. Without my spirit, my pralung, my untainted hopefulness, I felt like a kite with its string severed, drifting, drifting.”

She is unprepared; she makes mistakes that she does not even recognize to be errors until devastation strikes.

Vaddey Ratner shared many of Raami’s experiences but chose to write a novel rather than a memoir because she was as young as Raami and needed to “cull from memory and history but also to employ imagination, the art of empathy”  because she had very little direct source material and was relying primarily on recollections and remembrances.*

Her style of storytelling is varied: longer descriptive passages are interspersed with bursts of dialogue and scenic sketches. Cambodian words are defined either directly or their meanings readily inferred.

She wrote to give voice to the memory of family members who were lost “and the memories of all those silenced”. And, yet, it was an extremely painful experience. “Each ordeal that had broken my heart when I was a child broke my heart again as an adult writing it.”

She refers to the fact that even short passages could take her days to write, and this is apparent in instances like this:

“I lightened my touch, and she poured water on her shoulders to soothe the burning, the water flowing down the spine, which rose in the middle of her back like a chain of mountains. I could count all her bones, the round notches and the long slender canes. The mountains, the Mekong, the Great Wall of China, I thought; Mama carried them all on her back.”

One of the vital forces which sustains Raami throughout these horrific experiences (and which Vaddey Ratner also relied upon) was storytelling.

She recalls discussions with her father, about “storytelling, how there could be many versions of the same story, many ways of telling it, and how each version was a kind of manifestation, as if the story itself was a living, evolving entity, a god capable of many guises”.

Raami believes, like her father, that “while books could be torn or burned, the stories they held needn’t be lost or forgotten”. She, too, is a “lover of books”.

(These are advanced intelligent thoughts, but Raami is not retelling her story in the present tense; readers are not intended to believe that this is viewed entirely within a seven-year-old’s perspective, but, rather, a grown woman’s remembrance of what it was like to be the seven-year-old child of a poet who routinely discussed such advanced ideas with his daughter.)

Early in the novel Raami turns to her copy of the Reamker (a Cambodian adaptation of the Ramayana),  to try to understand the battles raging near her childhood home; when she must further pare down the goods she has carried from her family home when she is forced to flee, she still keeps a plate torn from the book.

Vaddey Ratner writes: “Stories were magic spells, I felt, and storytelling, the ability to tell and recall something, was a kind of sorcery, a power you could use to transform and transport yourself.”

Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan offers readers the power to transform and transport, weaving a magic spell that terrifies and astonishes.

Companion Reads:

  • Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
    (almost unbearably beautiful children’s voices, also a tale of survival)
  • Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared
    (another perspective on the devastating legacy of Pol Pot’s savagery, very different voice/pace)
  • Kim Thúy’s Ru
    (same time period, another narrator of privileged background forced to leave her Vietnamese — not Cambodian — home)

*Information about the author is drawn from “A Conversation with Vaddey Ratner” Simon&Schuster, 2012

A Browse Inside feature, an excerpt from the audiobook, a short video, and a reader’s guide are available on Simon & Schuster’s site.