Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Sunday, 2 December 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan - Vaddey Ratner

‘We are all echoes of one another, Raami.’

Author Vaddey Ratner has revisited her life-changing childhood experiences growing up in Cambodia to create this fictionalized tale that incorporates much of what actually happened to her.

The story is narrated throughout by a young girl named Raami, who is seven-years-old when we first meet her. She enjoys a happy, priviledged life with her wealthy, well-connected family, her mother and father, little sister, and other relations and servants of the family. Then one day her father comes home with the news that in the capital, Phnom Penh, civil war has begun. Suddenly life changes for the family, fleeing their home and forced into the countryside with thousands of others, with no idea of where they are being taken, or what will happen to them. The family endures an enormous amount of hardship, sadness, separation and loss over the next four years.

I found this tale very moving, and I learned about a place and a period in history that I knew very little about. Seeing these events and experiencing them through the eyes of a child gives a very particular perspective on things. Raami is an insightful observer, but at times it is beyond her to comprehend this world. As one of relatives tells her: ‘The problem with being seven – I remember myself at that age – is that you’re aware of so much, and yet you understand so little. So you imagine the worst.’

Raami is forced to grow up fast as a result of what she endures. Worked almost to death in the fields, scrabbling desperately for any food that is available, clinging to the few loved ones that remain around her, she lives through a heartbreaking, horrific time and witnesses so much cruelty and pain for one so young.

Nature reflects the condition of the people’s lives, toiling day after day, clearing the earth, under the constant guard of the Revolutionary soldiers. The language conveys the affliction felt by them all: ‘It was a sick sky. A sky burning with welts. Angry and red. The colors of rotting flesh, of dying and death, of one heaving last breath.’

Throughout all of this, Raami thinks often of her beloved father, a gentle man, a prince and a poet, and of the stories he used to tell her. He taught her of the power of words to transcend and transform even the worst situations: ‘Words, you see,’ he said, looking at me again, ‘allow us to make permanent what is essentially transient. Turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical. Even if only on paper.’

They meant so much to her, and now, as she faces the lowest points of her short life so far, these stories, legends from the past, are what she recalls to bring her through the darkest moments.

A beautiful and captivating debut novel from a first-hand witness of the times. 

Reviewed by Lindsay Healy

Published by Simon & Schuster
reviewed as part of the amazon vine programme


  1. I loved this book too, thought it was simply beautiful. Glad you enjoyed it :)

    1. Thanks for commenting Sam. Lovely to hear how much you loved this one.

  2. I love the cover. I've gone off child narrators a bit though so probably won't be running out to read this.

    1. It's beautiful isn't it? There have been a fair few child narrators around lately in more adult fiction. I did like this voice, sometimes she seemed so wise beyond her years.


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