Saturday, February 2, 2013

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Though the story is horrifying, this is one of the best books I've read in a long time.  The author was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in her native Cambodia.  Though she and her mother survived, most of her immediate and extended family did not.  Because her memory of events over the next 4 years was imperfect, she decided to tell her family's story in the form of a novel.  Apparently she took liberty with the timing of some events, and joined many family members into composites for purposes of the novel, but otherwise stayed true to her recollection of what happened.

The novel is told from the perspective of seven year old Raami, a survivor of polio who walks with a limp and looks enviously at her mother and toddler sister, with their perfect bodies.  Before the war breaks out, Raami is the descendent of royalty, calling her grandmother, "Grandmother Queen".  She lives in a large villa, surrounded by gardens, decorated with murals, and kept running by a small army of servants.  She is doted upon by her father, a renowned poet and worships her more elusive mother, who was a "commoner" before marrying into the family.

Everything changes abruptly when the Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh and order the family, as well as all other city dwellers to leave their homes.  The family, and an aunt, grabs what it can, says farewell to its beloved servants, and sets out in the family car to their country house where they meet up with an uncle and his family as well as Grandmother Queen.  Eventually they are driven from there, forced to abandon their car and take to the forests, being driven further and further into the wilderness.

The first stop is an abandoned Buddhist monastery, where at least the family is together, though they are beginning to suffer from hunger.  The rebels seek constantly to remove the elite from the group and Raami's father, because he is widely recognized, gives himself up in an effort to save the rest of the family.  He lies and says the others are all his wife's family, the descendants of farmers.  He's taken away in an ox cart and Raami never sees him again - but not before he tells her he's doing what he does to give her wings and that she'll always be able to see him on the face of the moon.  These promises as well as the words of the poems and stories he's always told her, carry her through the traumas of the next few years, though her father's departure almost destroys her mother.

The next stop is being "reeducated" in the home of peasants (after Raami, her mother and sister are separated from the others).  Though poor the elderly, childless peasants are loving and kind.  The husband teaches Raami many survival skills that help her later.  But tragedy strikes Raami's sister, further diminishing her mother before they are again driven away.  In a forest again with other people being forced to keep moving, they meet up with Raami's uncle and grandmother - the only members of the extended family they ever see again.  They are driven to a new community which is run by a more moderate member of the Khmer Rouge and settle into somewhat of a routine, the adults working and Raami attending a form of school.  But just when things seem bearable a new guard takes over creating more stringent rules, breaking up the family further and nearly starving everyone to death.

Eventually the Vietnamese army drives away the Khmer Rouge and Raami and her mother escape to Thailand (following a map left by her father prior to his departure) and are swept to safety in a UN helicopter.

A very powerful and beautifully written novel - Ratner's language is so vivid you can see Cambodia crumble right before your eyes, all the time marvelling at the inner strength and love that sustain Raami.

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