In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781451657708
On sale August 7, 2012

Vaddey Ratner's debut novel caught my attention when I read this effusive recommendation from author Chris Cleave: "In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary acts of storytelling I have ever encountered." Turns out the story, which details a family's experience during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, actually lives up to that high praise.

The main character and narrator is Raami, a tough little girl who is separated from her family and forced to perform hard physical labor—an experience that mirrors the real life of the author, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power. It is difficult to read about Raami's hardships, and sometimes it seems like she will never emerge from her life's hell. What makes the story so remarkable, however, is how Ratner constantly juxtaposes horror with small moments of beauty. Even her characters are aware of this tension, and it really is satisfying to read about the resilience of human beings.

Here are a couple examples:

"Do you know why I told you stories, Raami?" he [her father] asked. We'd left the others, their panic and fears, and hid ourselves in the solitude of the meditation pavilion.

I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.

"When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly." His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world's suffering." He glanced up at the face of the wooden Buddha in its corner of the room and, as if conceding to some argument they'd had earlier, murmured, "Yes, it's true everywhere you look there is suffering—an old man has disappeared, a baby died and his coffin is a desk, we live in the classrooms haunted by ghosts, this sacred ground is stained with the blood of murdered monks." He swallowed, then cupping my face in his hands, continued, "My greatest desire, Raami, is to see you live. If I must suffer so that you can live, then I will gladly give up my life for you, just as I once gave up everything to see you walk."

Or this line, which describes so much of this novel:
Joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes whether by grace or misfortune they meet and become each other's companion.

Are you interested in reading In the Shadow of the Banyan? What are you reading today?

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