Saturday 21 July 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Finished July 20
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

This novel takes us to Cambodia in the late '70s, in the time of the civil war. Raami is seven years old, the oldest daughter in a royal family. She wears a leg brace as a result of polio. She lives in Phnom Penh, with her father and mother and little sister Radana, her aunt Tata, and Grandmother Queen.
When the Khmer Rouge take over the city, Raami and her family are forced to flee their home. At first they go to their country home, near the Mekong river, but are soon forced out of that by the revolutionary soldiers as well.
As they join others, living in makeshift shelters, forced into further and further hardships, separated from those they love, Raami tries to keep her father's advice in mind. He told her that you can always find a tiny glimpse of beauty no matter what ugliness and destruction is around you. Raami's Papa is a poet and has told her stories ever since she was little, engaging her imagination and teaching her the myths of the Cambodian spiritual world. While witnessing the world changing around her, Raami keeps her imagination and the stories. She is a witness even while being a victim of the regime. Raami's voice is strong and individual and brings the novel to life before us. Raami is a child who is forced to mature under harsh conditions, forced labour and the loss of family members, but she hangs on to a bit of that childhood innocence throughout.
The author was also young, only five, when she too was forced out of her royal house with her family. Bringing portions of her own history into this story adds to the emotional integrity of the book, and the afterword, where she tells us briefly of her own story and her own return to Cambodia as an adult, is moving.
I also found the mention of the youth of many of the soldiers interesting, given the large number of child soldiers today in the Middle East and Africa. This seems to be a theme common to internal uprisings that warrants discussion.
This book is an amazing read, bringing a country in a difficult historical time to life for the reader. I highly recommend it.
My parents visited Cambodia earlier this year, and I look forward to talking to them about it after they read this book.

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