In Life Is Beautiful, a man uses his imagination to help his child cope with the horrors of the Holocaust. Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel, In the Shadow Of The Banyan, also blends love, creativity, horror, and genocide, but the mix is far bleaker. The results are emotionally draining, but well worth reading to provide a look at an atrocity few modern Americans know much about.
The story follows Raami, a child who grows up in extreme privilege in Cambodia due to her distant ties to the royal family. Her idyllic existence is already threatened by a brewing Communist revolution at the beginning of the book, and an early passage where the family’s beloved cook disappears and is presumed dead after trying to get sugar from the market shows that Banyan isn’t going to be a light read. Raami’s life of safety ends when Khmer Rouge soldiers force her family out of the capital as part of the regime’s rejection of modern life, a social-engineering experiment that ultimately killed an estimated 25 percent of the country’s population through a mix of executions, starvation, and preventable disease.
Ratner depicts the Khmer Rouge’s edicts as unpredictable and senseless. Their list of crimes includes widespread corruption and murder of specific social classes. But sometimes the small cruelties sting the most, like when a woman with a prominent place in the ruling organization steals a fine dress from a dead child, then uses the mother’s grief to expose her to further persecution.
Ratner’s work is remarkable in that it’s based on her actual experiences growing up in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s brief reign, and she’s preserved real-life details here, like the name and personality of her father, a poet known to his royal kin as The Tiger Prince. While aspects of her life provide rare first-person insights on the harrowing period, her decision to make her narrator a 7-year-old is more problematic. Her depiction of Raami is erratic; the girl makes decisions and says things a naïve child wouldn’t, and drifts between childish imaginings and wonder, and more mature musings on morality and circumstance that seem out of place.
Raami’s father schools her in Buddhist myth to help her cope with the pain of being crippled by polio as an infant, and those stories also serve as a refuge as her circumstances rapidly worsen. Lovely tales of birds trapped in lotuses, divine beings playing in storms, and martyring rabbits, combined with a few rare moments of compassion from strangers, provide needed relief to the pages that so often show the worst humanity is capable of. Ratner survived these horrors to share her story, producing a deeply personal work that celebrates the endurance of the human spirit and the possibility of rebirth.