10 Feb / In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Confession first: I took almost two years to finish this debut novel. Not until an interview deadline loomed (stay tuned!) could I force myself to keep turning the pages until I reached the end. Because I just couldn’t let the book go. As wrenching and terrifying as the story is – the survival of a young child through the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that took most of her family along with some two million others – In the Shadow of the Banyan is surely one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I’ve read in years.
Based on her own family tragedy, Vaddey Ratner‘s novel is a love letter in honor of the poet prince father she lost. Ratner’s fictionalized counterpart is Raami, the oldest daughter of a Cambodian prince who, with his privileged western education and reverence for his ancient culture, found his personal balance in beauty, knowledge, but most especially humanity. These are the unassailable traits that he imbues in his young daughter, but they are also the very elements of his royal background that take him too soon to an unknown grave. Under Khmer Rouge control, the family members disappear – murder, suicide, illness claim their shattered souls – until Raami is left only with her bewildered mother who somehow finds the steely strength to save them both.
In the book trailer available on her website, Ratner hauntingly bears witness: “[Banyan] isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy … I thought it was something much more universal, much more indicative of the human experience: our endeavor to stay alive, our very desire for life.” The book proves to be that remarkable, living gift, providing undeniable testimony that only humanity trumps deprivation, injustice, horror, and even the greatest tragedies.