This is my final review for #AsianLitBingo, and what a book to be going out on!
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 she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of 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.
I had the pleasure of doing a buddy-read of In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner with Sinead @ Huntress of Diverse Books. I found it to be a fantastic venture, as she knew so much more than me about Cambodia and Buddhism – thanks so much for putting up with all my questions, Sinead!
A note: there are lots of trigger warnings in this book. Murder, violence, genocide, starvation, forced labour, death of children, suicide…and I’m sure there are some that I have forgotten. This book, because of the nature of the story, is not for the faint of heart. This is a book full of horror and resilience. I honestly don’t know if I can describe the emotions that it evoked in me. I ached to comfort the protagonist, Raami, and her entire family as their worlds are blown to pieces. In the Shadow of the Banyan is historical fiction, but it almost read like fantasy to me, because of the terrifying events that occur, over and over again – if only genocide was indeed only found in the imaginations of authors.
I was amazed by the fact that, in the author’s note, Ratner talks about how a lot of the book was based upon her own experiences. I had not realised that this book was such an own voices text – it is practically autobiographical. She too was in Cambodia, was a member of the royal family, and has polio – just like Raami. I was really glad to see that the disability rep in particular was own voices. Although it didn’t play much of a part, plot-wise, it was extremely important to mention, I think. We don’t often hear the stories of disabled people in genocides.
The one problem that I had with this book was the writing style. It was absolutely stunning – absolutely crammed with references to myths and stories, as well as profound thoughts about life itself. It…is not the point-of-view of a 7 year old. While Raami does at one point talk about being old for her age, I think that the book would have been improved if it had just been in third-person, because I really couldn’t suspend my disbelief that a 7 year old would think like that.
In all, if you can stomach it, In the Shadow of the Banyan is absolutely recommended. This will remain as one of the most important and tragic books I have ever read in my life.