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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

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

The book started off as a very fast read and I whipped through the first 80 pages, but then it began to slow down, and to drag even. I was dismayed. But upon reflection, I think this was perfect. See, the book is about a wealthy royal family in Cambodia when the revolution breaks out, and what happens to them, seen through the eyes of the oldest 7-year-old daughter, Raami. And at the beginning it is hectic and discombobulating and no one knows what's going on exactly. They are herded from their home, exiled, separated from friends and family, and have no idea what will happen to them. And then, as their new life begins to settle in (although "settle" is not exactly accurate as the revolution wants to keep people on their toes by constantly changing things up so in the course of four years, Raami and her mother end up in at least three different places), things do slow down. Life becomes more rote, a series of identical horrible little indignities as they are forced to work like laborers and are slowly starving to death. The pacing of the novel echoes the pacing of their lives and as the narrative slows, so do their lives.

Ms. Ratner has written a masterful novel, one filled with poetry and beauty, despite the degrading and horrifying circumstances. Sadly, it is based on her own life story, although obviously she has thrived in the aftermath. Normally I don't gravitate towards books that are particularly foreign and I also am not crazy about war novels, especially as regards wars I am less familiar with, but I am glad I was assigned to read this book by my book club as I really did love it. In fact, it is one of my favorite book club reads all year! There was a ton to discuss and other readers' angles on the story were fascinating. Incredibly sad but ultimately filled with uplifting hope, In the Shadow of the Banyan should be widely read and treasured.

I bought this book at Parnassus Bookstore, an independent.

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