In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher:

You are about to read an extraordinary story. It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

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 the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her 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. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

Here’s the thing about In the Shadow of the Banyan: it is not an easy read. Not by a long shot. I’m not talking about the writing, or the language, or the style or any of those little things, but rather the subject matter is heartbreaking, devastating, and utterly mind-boggling to tell you the truth. The story of the Khmer Rouge, told through the eyes of a child, nearly broke me. But it is a story that needs to be shared, because many people (myself included) don’t know much about this period of history and we MUST know these things. We must.

But let’s talk about the aspects of this novel that kept me turning pages – Raami herself, the gorgeous writing, the fact that I was hoping and praying that this family would make it through these horrific conditions with some semblance of their family still together – and because of all these things, it makes the subject matter just a tiny bit more palatable.

From what I understand, Ratner herself experienced these atrocities first-hand when she was a child in Cambodia, so basically the character of Raami is a slightly older version of the author as a child. Not only does that fact make everything in this book more credible, but it makes these horrible events hit even closer to home because reading it you KNOW there is real pain and suffering behind the author’s words. It is horrible to think about but at the same time, I couldn’t help being grateful to Ratner that she had the courage to share her own experiences in such a way that became this beautiful novel.

I highly recommend In the Shadow of the Banyan. Not because you will enjoy the read necessarily, but because you will learn from it. And your heart will be forever changed by the experience of reading it.