Book Recommendation: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
That children can be wise is something of a surprise to the adult population. Age, popular belief dictates, is precursor to wisdom, a necessary step without which that sort of elevated thinking and perspective is impossible. To be fair, there may be some truth to this. But to forget that the age of numbers and the age of experience are vastly different things is a fallacy. Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, is a testament to the brand of naive wisdom that is characteristic to children and the power their perspectives hold.
At the age of seven, young Raami’s world is destroyed by the force responsible for the destruction of Cambodia in the mid- to late-1970s: the Khmer Rouge. Expelled from her childhood home in Phnom Penh, Raami and the rest of her royal family set out among the masses to take their place as citizens of the new Democratic Kampuchea in a time known as Year Zero, when educated people are massacred and the rest of the population is put to work in labor camps across the countryside. Hiding their identities and seeking refuge whenever possible, the family is carted forward through four years of brutal Khmer Rouge rule, ripped and torn at every stage. A polio survivor, Raami’s physical deficiencies protect her for some time, allowing her the chance to escape into a world of poetry and stories that occupied her active mind before the war. As time goes on and the Organization grows panicked, any semblance of compassion is stamped out and even starving children are forced to work.
This is a tale of perseverance, pain, family, and wisdom. Told through the eyes of the young Raami, the stories of starvation, loss, and forced labor are actually memories from Ratner’s childhood in Cambodia. Using Raami as a stand-in, Ratner shares versions of her own history, injecting some adult perspective into the child’s observations, treating her protagonist with care and allowing her to harness the power of stories and legends to escape her reality.
That ability to remove herself from her immediate surroundings, to see magic in the nature around her and to imagine that things aren’t what they seem not only gives Raami an unexpected perspective, it saves her. Over four years, Raami ages more than can be imagined, taking on a physical, mental and emotional toll that seems practically unbearable. And though her escapes into fantasy become less frequent, their power is apparent in keeping her connected to a past worth honoring.
History and popular culture tell us that a child’s perspective is not worth that of an elder’s. To those who subscribe to that belief, I challenge you to read In the Shadow of the Banyan and then continue to think the same. Certainly, Raami’s perspective is directed by an adult author, but the thrill and fear of discovery, the sense of imagination, the willingness to believe that what she sees may not be reality–all this is wisdom packaged in a way to which we are not accustomed. And through Raami’s changing perspective, accelerated by four harsh years of firsthand experience, we learn things about Cambodia, about history, that we could never know otherwise.
Source: I got this book as a free ARC from NetGalley.