In the Shadow of the Banyan

Written by Vaddey Ratner
Review by Kathryn Johnson

Vaddey Ratner’s novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, is as much memoir as it is fiction. This is the thinly cloaked tale, both shocking and heart wrenching, of her own coming of age during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The story is told through Raami, seven years old at the beginning of the narrative. Her father ventures into the city each day to gather material for beautiful poems he will compose for Raami. But he is also reconnoitering the city, keeping an eye for trouble. Raami overhears his disturbing report to his wife as they lie in bed. More terrifying than the deprivation he witnesses are the armed, black-garbed soldiers who eventually order the family out of their home or else be shot.

Raami and her family suffer starvation, forced labor, and cruel brainwashing, and slowly they dwindle under the vicious yoke of the regime that views even memory of the past as reason for execution. At times, Raami recalls her father’s fable about Buddha who took the form of a rabbit and sacrificed himself to feed a hungry Indra, king of gods. Rabbit “built a fire…and jumped into the roaring flames. But just as he did, Indra [seized] his spirit, and flew him off to the moon, where he carved [his] figure on its luminous surface.” Raami always wonders if Rabbit isn’t up there tending his own funeral pyre—truly a chilling image of the sacrifices made by the Cambodian people even as they witnessed the destruction of their country.

The story is horrifying, but beautifully told—at once painful and captivating. The resilience of the human spirit and body, the ability to hope even in the face of extreme hopelessness: that is what carries the reader through this touching masterpiece of a novel.