In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner:

It is not very common, especially among the bestsellers of the last few years, to find a book that is so beautifully written and so poetic as “In the Shadow of the Banyan”, by the Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner. The narrative and the story are very captivating, and the whole is delivered in the best words the English language has to offer.


The story takes place in Cambodia in the mid-70s, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge rule. Raami, the main character, is the daughter of a minor prince. She is surrounded by her loving mother, her sister and cousins, aunts, uncles and servants, and all it takes to say that she is having a really happy childhood. She has a very close relationship with her father, who, besides from being a prince, is a renowned and talented poet. He teaches her everything a child has to know about love, life and patience. The quiet life of Raami is soon going to be disturbed by the rise to power of communists, which is going to take her life upside down, and is going to take away all the love that was fulfilling her life.

Everything starts during the Khmer New Year where communist forces break out into their house, forcing them to live their past and their houses behind and to follow the soldiers into an unknown place. The whole family is in panic, not only because they don’t understand what is happening, but also because they belong to Royalty and fear the anger of the Revolution. The novel gives an interesting insight on the experience of the communist rule from the perspective of Vaddey Ratner, who actually lived it and decided to write about it. She explains how her Raami (who in fact is herself), is separated from her uncles and aunts, after her father has been taken away by soldiers, and goes with her mother and sister to a farm where she will have to help with the work. She recalls the tragic death of her sister, of her grandmother. She explains how her mother has patiently played the game of the “true Revolutionary”, until she had the occasion to escape and to take her daughter away and eventually offer her a better life.

Although the novel recounts painful and dramatic events from the Khmer Rouge rule, it is full of hope and beauty. It shows that when one is patient enough and believes in love, one is always going to find a way.

I was particularly moved when Raami stopped talking when she witnessed the death of people in front of her, and when she saw how the soldiers who supervised the famers didn’t value at all human life. I was as well chocked by the famine and descriptions of hunger that Raami and her entourage at the farm suffered from.

Most of all, the book made me reflect on the evil of human being, and on the why things such as the Cambodian genocide can ever happen. What is further interesting is that the book, besides from telling a story, sets the plot of the actual circumstances when the communist rule established itself, from the breaking out of soldiers into townsfolk people, dividing their families, and taking them into fields where they would work in farm. It depicts the circumstances of the living  conditions of people under the authoritarian rule: families as well as demonstrations of love were forbidden, religion was banned, hunger was widespread, money and wealth were unthinkable, and chaos and sorrow were definitely common.


I can recall some beautiful quotes from the book:

“Words, you see,” he said, looking at me again, “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.”

“We are all echoes of one another, Raami” 

“I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything-your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering”

“The problem with being seven is that you’re aware of so much and yet you understand so little” 

“I thought maybe we mourned not only for the dead but also for the living. We felt their absence before we knew for sure they were gone.”

“There is no greater humiliation than hunger.” 

“Absence is worse than death. If you suddenly disappeared without a trace, it’s like you had never lived.”

“For all the loss and tragedy I have known, my life has taught me that the human spirit like the lifted hands of the blind, will rise above chaos and destruction, as wings in flight” 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: