- In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner was published in August 2012
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- 315 pages
Don't get me wrong. This book is not just sad. There is a cord of hope and redemption throughout, and moments of deeply moving tenderness. It is, however, like Holocaust literature. Even when there is hope, it comes among descriptions of the worst human beings are capable of -- and sadly, the worst can often be worse than we imagine. The Khmer Rouge period, when somewhere between a fifth to a third of the Cambodian population was slaughtered and which included a campaign to break down natural human and family bonds through separation, relocation and slogans such as "to destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain" -- is a dark spot in human history. This book does an important job in remembering, especially in the West where Asian history is often glossed over. It does more than that, though. It also, examines hope, suffering, religion, stories and what it means to be human.
There are many remarkable things about In the Shadow of the Banyan. One is that it is basically the author's life story. She admits as much in the Author's Note, although writing it as fiction granted her liberties with timelines, characters and language. It is also remarkable how beautiful and flowing Ratner's language is without becoming overly poetic or hard to follow. There is plenty of plot and character development, but it is clothed in well woven words.
I've read others who comment on the importance of stories in this novel. Indeed, the main character, a seven year old named Raami, has a conversation with her father where he says, "'Words, you see...allow us to make permanent what is essentially transient. Turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical. Even if only on paper'" (106). You can imagine this as Ratner's purpose statement. The young girl also observes that as relocated people arrived at their new location, "People exchanged personal stories of loss and death as they would food items and articles of clothing...One ordeal gave companionship to another, and in this way everyone accepted the fact that they were not alone, that this awfulness was universal, inescapable" (144).
It is not, however, complete to say this novel is about the power of stories. Most of the stories Papa tells Raami are Buddhist tales, and much of the hope comes from a larger religious narrative that ties this world with another. "Milk Mother said that stories are like footpaths of the gods. They lead us back and forth across time and space and connect us to the entire universe, to people and beings we never see but who we feel exist" (82). The line between religious belief and story is blurred in the novel, but it is important to recognize that the words spoken are not just comfort-tales. They are examinations of what it means to live and die, to love, to survive and to remember. Raami sees a Buddhist slogan on a wall and thinks, "Knowing comes from learning, finding from seeking. It was clear what the message meant. If I looked hard enough, if I sought, I would find what I was looking for. Here, on the banyan-shaded ground, the temple harbored minute reflections of the paradise we'd left behind" (80).
Although stories play an important role in the characters' lives, the drama they experience is not secondary. Ratner still uses beautiful language to describe the struggle, though, as when Raami says, "And so, as I navigated the human terrain, as I negotiated for my survival, I began to discern what Pok had wanted me to see that day when he walked us across the rice fields and showed me what lay beneath the paddy water -- that hidden in the unbroken and seemingly imperturbable monotony of rural geography, existed those, like needle leeches, who fed on blood and destruction. If I was to survive my uprooting and transplantation, I must grow and stretch myself as a young rice shoot would. I must rise above the mire and muck, the savagery of my environment, while appearing to thrive in it" (186).
Truly, this is a book that is deserving of the praise it has received. It is one of the best debut novels of 2012. It is an important piece of historical fiction. And it is a book that you will want to chew on -- to think about deeply. If, after finishing In the Shadow of the Banyan, you want to think more about the story or specific passages, we have provided these book club questions on the novel as a guide for individuals or groups.