Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

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.

I hadn’t read much about this time period in Cambodia and I was very much looking forward to learning about it. Maybe I should have read some nonfiction about this subject first.

I wanted to like this book and I was nearly sure that I would. Sadly, I was mistaken. I did enjoy parts, but as a whole it didn’t speak to me. The language felt a bit too flowery and there wasn’t enough solid information about what was going on.

The author’s note at the end was where I finally felt a connection to the book. She talked about her own experiences as a young girl in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s regime. That was when I felt myself choking up, thinking of what she and her family went through.Vaddey Ratner’s personal story is amazing. I can’t imagine how painful it was for her to write this book.

 I so wish she had written a memoir instead of a fictional account. She does talk about why she didn’t, and her reasons make absolute sense. 

11 thoughts on “Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

  1. I have always been interested in recent Cambodian history especially that involving the Khmer Rouge. It is an absolutely horrendous period in history of course. The takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge must have been one of the worst things in all of history to have lived through. It is too bad that this book was a disappointment. Obviously told from a very different point of view, but a few years ago I read Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short which was excellent but troubling.


  2. I think I would have liked this book a lot more if I knew more of the background of those times. I felt that she told the story in a way that seemed to assume the reader would already know what was going on. I should look for that Pol Pot book, sounds like something I could sink my teeth into!


  3. I love multicultural fiction, and this book is on my wish list. It's a shame it didn't work for you. It sounds like the prose was a bit too lyrical and there wasn't enough exposition.


  4. Hi ya! You were just over at my site Rainy Day Reads. Thanks for signing up for the Book Blogger Spotlight! You have a great site here, I will be in touch very soon about the spotlight. 🙂 Just followed via GFC. Christine xRainy Day


  5. Today I was thinking more about this book. It was told from a child's point of view and of course as a child you couldn't begin to wrap your mind around what was going on. Perhaps that was why the exposition was missing? That makes sense to me..but I still wanted more, lol. I think it just didn't work for ME because I like FACTS more than mystery?


  6. It's too bad that it didn't quite meet your expectations. There needs to be more literature on what happened during the Khmer Rouge. It sounds like this one is not going to fit the bill.


  7. If you have not seen the movie \”The Killing Fields\” it is a really harrowing true life account of the Khmer Rouge takeover and its aftermath. It is a great movie but also disturbing.


  8. I am sorry the book was not as good as you wished, I hate that. 😦 I can imagine it would be even a little disconcerting to read about the horrors of Khmer Rouge in a flowery type style. A friend of mine gave me First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It was one of the best books I have ever read, but also the saddest by far. If you are interested in reading a memoir from the time of Khmer Rouge I recommend it.


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