Book Review of In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Posted July 18, 2012 by Kara in Uncategorized / 8 Comments

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: August 7th, 2012
Pages: 336
Genre: Adult, Cultural Fiction, Historical
Source: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Blurb: 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 she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of 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 testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.


Writing this review is going to be difficult. Trying to be objective on this one is going to be tough. This was probably the hardest book I have EVER had to read. And I have read about some difficult subjects. But I’ve always held an interest in the Khmer Rouge and the history and atrocities committed. I can’t say that I learned more than I didn’t already know, but this book was presented as a blend of memoir and fiction, rather than reading a dry webpage or nonfiction presentation. It brought a different experience to all that I already know. Still…I cried so many times and on several occasions found myself in such a state of nausea that I almost vomited. It’s the truth and I’m being honest. This was a hard f*cking book to read. It was not fun. I did not find it entertaining. And yet, it was really, REALLY good. I know many people like to read books about the tough stuff, but I’ve realized that there is a limit to how much I can take and I will be cognizant of that in the future. But I need to review this the best that I can. Here is what I can say:

In the Shadow of the Banyan was an extremely well-written book. It was a little dry in places which is why the book did not receive 5 stars from me. But I did really enjoy the voice of Raami and I found myself caring for her more than I do most characters. Could it have been because of her terrible circumstances? Sure. But it was also because she was just really well-developed. This girl felt utterly real. The things that happened to her and her family were absolutely heartbreaking. There are many things that make me lose faith in humanity, but none so much as the actions of the Khmer Rouge soldiers in this book.

Some of the other characters were a little flat. And I sometimes felt that I was being told a story and a sequence of events and I didn’t get as involved in the side characters as I could have. That was a shame. Because as devastated as I was, it could have been even more powerful with a little tweaking. Still a fantastic book–beautiful in tone, and I have several quotes that I marked that I want to share with you.

Something jumped in front of us. A silver-tailed fish. It flashed like a knife in the air and then disappeared again beneath the surface. Papa’s gaze followed the ripples shimmying in the water, and for a moment he looked as if he would jump into the pond and follow the fish. He often looked like this–like he wanted to escape but know he couldn’t. “The guard didn’t know better, you see. He thought he was honoring me by beating a boy–a worthless street urchin, in his eyes–who dared to curse me, defile my noble name.”


In the morning, I found Mama outside stirring a pot of boiled lotus seeds over the cooking fire. The pot of rainwater was nearby. I walked to it, scooped some out with my hands, and drank, my parched throat remedied. She handed me a bowl of the lotus seeds. At first she was silent, wouldn’t even look at me. Then, as I sat down to eat, she said, “There was a mother…” Her voice was small, like the rustle of a leaf in an immense forest. “She loved her daughter so much that she’d give the child whatever the girl desired. One night while they were playing in the garden, the little daughter saw the full moon and wanted it. The mother tried to explain that the moon belongs up there. You can’t just pluck it from the sky like you would a fruit from a tree. But like any small child, the girl didn’t understand the moon isn’t something you possess. She cried and cried. So what could the mother do but give her daughter the moon? She brought a bucket of water, and pointing to the reflection, said, ‘Here’s your moon, my love.’ The little girl, delighted, plunged her arms into the bucket, and for hours she played with her moon, watching it dance and swirl.”

I couldn’t decide which quote was my favorite, so I decided to use both. One if from Raami’s father, and the other is from her mother. Both amazing characters, by the way. I chose two quotes that didn’t reveal spoilers because this is one of the books where I don’t want to ruin the story by giving you bits and pieces out of context. You just need to read it. This is definitely not a book that I would recommend for everyone, however. If you cannot handle depressing and horrific subjects, pass on this one.

The one point that I want to sink in is that this is a book that makes you feel. And hurt. And if you are an emotional person, it will likely make you physically ill. I don’t think I could ever read it again. It hurts me to think about. How could humanity do the things that they did? It makes me hate the world, and especially humans. What an ugly, UGLY world we live in. But at the same time, I fell in love with a few of the characters. Especially Raami’s father. And her uncle. And I cannot explain in words how much this book emotionally impacted me. That was the point though. If you think this is something you would like based on the writing and the synopsis, I would read it. But prepare yourself. You need kleenex, a blanket, and someone to hug; preferably a dog that’s really cuddly.

To buy a copy of In the Shadow of the Banyan from, click here: In the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel.

Watch the author discuss her book and the meaning behind it below. It’s a very touching and emotional video. It’s hard to watch a survivor of the Khmer Rouge talk because I cannot imagine what living through that was like. It doesn’t go away just because it’s over and life goes on. An experience like that changes the way you think, feel, and live. Forever. Vaddey Ratner is an inspiration to me. Unbelievable.
And you should know, even though this book is listed as fiction, it’s really not. A few of the experiences have been reworked and that is the only thing that keeps it from being a memoir. So if you read it, you should know. Each one of these characters was very, very real.
There is a message of hope in this book, but to me it was overshadowed by the devastation. 

8 responses to “Book Review of In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

  1. I _love_ that quote about the moon. It made me tear up. I’ve been waiting for you to review this one, and am glad to hear that you liked it, despite (or perhaps because of) the heavy subject matter. Great review, Kara <3

  2. Aida

    I know nothing of the Cambodian genocide, but this novel looks like one of these sad but beatiful and powerful books that are worth reading even though they make you suffer. It reminds me of Half of a Yellow Sun, which I loved (as much as you can “love” this kind of books)

    • That’s exactly the kind of book it was, Aida. I would definitely recommend it to a reader who is just being introduced to the Khmer Rouge. You should try it. I hope you enjoy it if you do.

  3. I would like to read this book and I’ve ordered it from my library. I’ve read a few books on what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. One I recommend is “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung. Very tough read, but worth it! (I reviewed the sequel “Lucky Child” on my website)

    • Thank you for the recommendation, Ruth. I will definitely look into that book. I find it really hard to read difficult topics and I don’t know if I can do it again, but you never know.

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