Stories enrich us in different ways. They entertain us and take us to faraway lands. They give insight into the lives of others, and aid us in our own introspection. For Raami, the child narrator of In the Shadow of the Banyan, stories bring salvation, giving her the strength to survive the Cambodian genocide. Raami contracted polio as an infant, and her father tells her stories from a young age, saying, “When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly . . . I told you stories to give you wings.” Raami holds these stories inside herself during impossible circumstances, maintaining the will to live.

This haunting debut novel is based on the amazing life story of author Vaddey Ratner, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s. Like Raami, she was born as minor royalty, forced out of her home in Phnom Penh, separated from family members and forced to perform hard labor until she nearly starved. In an author’s note, Ratner explains that she wrote a novel instead of a memoir because she wanted to reinvent and reimagine her experiences where “memory alone is inadequate.” Although the fictionalized story of Raami—who is seven when the story begins—stands on its own, the reader’s knowledge of Ratner’s close personal connection to the material makes the novel feel even more intimate and devastating.

Remarkably, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an uplifting story, as Raami’s humanity—her fierce choice of life—is juxtaposed with the cruelty around her. Ratner’s lyrical prose and graceful descriptions serve as a lovely counterpart to bleak situations, reminding us of literature’s ability to transcend. Her novel will no doubt inspire readers to learn more about this painful chapter in world history.

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