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In the Shadow of the Banyan: A Novel Hardcover – August 7, 2012

4.6 out of 5 stars 644 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Ratner's remarkable debut novel transforms her childhood experiences into the finest of literary fiction . . . A powerful testament to the tenacity of love and family in the face of unspeakable inhumanity."--Indie Next List Great Reads

“Lyrical . . . It’s Raami’s mother who will stay in your heart . . . Somehow she retains the will to survive and the strength to help others, fiercely telling her daughter, ‘Remember who you are.’” (People, four stars)

“How is it that so much of this bleak novel is full of beauty, even joy? . . . What is remarkable, and honorable, here is the absence of anger, and the capacity—seemingly infinite—for empathy.” (New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice))

“The horrors committed by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, as experienced by one extremely resilient girl. A brutal novel, lyrically told.” (O, The Oprah Magazine)

“Unputdownable.” (Better Homes and Gardens)

“Lyrical . . . a love story to her homeland and an unflinching account of innocents caught in the crossfire of fanaticism.” (Parade)

“A tale of perseverance, hope and the drive toward life.” (The Washington Post)

“Humanity . . . shines through in her storytelling.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“For all the atrocities witnessed and hardships experienced, Ratner’s story is filled to an even larger extent with opportunism and beauty. Ratner’s gift is her exquisite descriptions of the careful details of daily life . . . Ratner describes her desire to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art. She has done just that; hers is a beautiful tale with considerable poetry and restraint. In the Shadow of the Banyan is an important novel, written by a survivor with unexpected grace and eloquence.” (Audrey Magazine)

“The powerful story of how even the most brutal regime lacked the power of a father’s love for his daughter.” (The Daily Beast)

“Gorgeous . . . Ratner bears witness to the unyielding human spirit.” (Washingtonian)

“One of those brave novels of resilience and the power of love that surface once or twice in a generation, like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.” (Buffalo News)

"Although Ratner provides a glimpse into what was going on in the country, this is Raami's story. Her personality and experience gives the novel its power. . . . Although she doesn't shy away from violence, loss and grief, she pays equal attention to small moments of compassion and natural beauty." (Columbus Dispatch)

“Exquisite.” (Providence Journal)

“Vaddey Ratner's debut novel bears witness to the atrocities of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and is not an easy read, but it captures the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.” (Yahoo! Shine)

“Ratner’s engrossing presentation of this tragedy is a remarkable achievement. This is one of those novels that lead writers like me to believe that real truth is best found in fiction.” (Washington Independent Review of Books)

“This stunning memorial expresses not just the terrors of the Khmer Rouge but also the beauty of what was lost. A hauntingly powerful novel imbued with the richness of old Cambodian lore, the devastation of monumental loss, and the spirit of survival.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“Often lyrical, sometimes a bit ponderous: a painful, personal record of Cambodia’s holocaust.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

An emotionally moving story . . . This tale of physical and emotional adversity grips readers without delving into the graphic nature of the violence that occurred at the time . . . Ratner's contemplative treatment of her protagonist and the love shared among the family stands in stark contrast to the severe reality they faced each day to survive. Knowing that the story was culled from Ratner's experiences as a child brings a sense of immediacy to this heartrending novel likely to be appreciated by many readers.” (Library Journal)

“Her heartrending, mournful tale depicts the horrors of thekilling fields and the senselessness of the violence there while still managing to capture small, beautiful moments…By countering the stark and abject realityof her experience with lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of Cambodia and its people, Ratner has crafted an elegiac tribute to the Cambodia she knewand loved.” (Booklist)

“Vividly told . . . a message of hope and [a] reminder of the depth of human spirit. Stories like this reach deep inside us and are, dare I say, life-changing?” (Bookreporter.com)

“Filled with gut-wrenching atrocities, this surprising story will transport you to a tragic time in history and show you how survival can depend on faith in family and memories that give you wings.” (Bookpage)

“Evocative, lyrical. . . . Accessible and profoundly moving, In the Shadow of the Banyan is destined to become a classic.” (School Library Journal)

“Ratner's touching and beautifully written In the Shadow of the Banyan celebrates the human spirit, the power of story and imagination and the triumph of good over evil.” (ShelfAwareness.com)

In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful acts of storytelling I have ever encountered. . . . This book pulls off the unsettling feat of being—at the same time—utterly heartbreaking and impossibly beautiful. There are some moments in this story that are among the most powerful in literature. This is a masterpiece that takes us to the highs and lows of what human beings can do in this life, and it leaves us, correspondingly, both humbled and ennobled.” (Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee)

“Vaddey Ratner’s novel is ravishing in its ability to humanize and personalize the Cambodian genocide of the 1970’s. She makes us look unflinchingly at the evil that humankind is capable of, but she gives us a child to hold our hand—an achingly believable child—so that we won’t be overwhelmed. As we have passed from one century of horrors and been plunged into a new century giving us more of the same, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a truly important literary event.” (Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain)

“‘Words . . . turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical,’ says Vaddey Ratner’s father in her stunning debut novel, and this is exactly what she has accomplished. Ratner has managed to conflate a child’s magical and indomitable hope with the horrific experience of the Khmer Rouge genocide to create a work that at once both deeply wounds and profoundly uplifts. With lyrical and breathtaking prose, Ratner plunges us into the midst of the nightmare that was thrust upon her, and yet, even amidst the darkness of starvation and violence, she never abandons us to despair. She always offers us the glimmering thread of hope and of love. She offers us wings. In a book rich with Buddhist teachings, the mythology of Cambodia, and the natural beauty of her world, Ratner weaves a moving tribute not only to her father and family but to victims of all genocides—past, present, and future.” (Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift)

“An astonishing book, unlike anything else that has emerged from Cambodia and its tragedies. In contrast to other books dealing with the Khmer Rouge period, this is not a memoir—it is literature, and literature of a high order.” (Philip Short, author of Pol Pot)

“A compelling new voice in world literature. Through the coming of age story of a sensitive girl, Ratner dramatizes both the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and the emotional cost of survival.” (Bharati Mukherjee, author of Miss New India)

About the Author

Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. In 1981 she arrived in the United States as a refugee not knowing English and ultimately went on to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell University. She lives in Potomac, Maryland.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (August 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451657706
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451657708
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (644 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #749,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I first learned of this book when I read the first chapter in a Simon & Schuster 2012 releases preview. I knew then I needed to read the rest of the book as soon as I could. I now have, and it is an amazing book.

It is amazing that this book was even written. The author was five when the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia. (Which is the story, of course.) While a million or more died, including many of her relatives, she survived. She made it to America at eleven, not knowing English. But she graduated summa cum laude from Cornell. Amazing, indeed, that a mind of this quality survived to bear witness to the horror.

Even more amazing is how well she has learned to write in an adopted language. She puts many native writers to shame. In fact, she brings to mind Conrad as a non-native writer who has made English her own. And comparisons to Conrad I do not make frivolously.

While beautifully, even gloriously, written, I can't say this book is easy to read. Some parts soar, but other parts describe horrible, shocking, conditions under the Khmer Rouge. The writing is wonderful, but the truth is terrible. I cried many times reading this book.

A native English writer myself, I am almost at a loss for words in describing this book. The author captures her love for her father and his learning, her pain at his loss, and the horrors of her survival under the Khmer Rouge, in terms so wonderful that I feel inadequate to the task of summarizing them. I envy her prose. It is glorious.

Much recent American fiction follows the line of: I didn't get what I wanted, so life is unfair, boo hoo. If you want to understand true human misery and struggle, it is revealed in this book.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a fictionalized work that parallels author Vaddey Ratner's personal history: a (minor) royal family of privilege and education is driven from Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge revolution. Told from the perspective of seven-year-old Raami, the novel follows her family through years of toil and labor in the countryside of Cambodia, through monsoons, sickness, and famine. Banyan is suffused with myth and poetry, both of which play a large role in Raami's family. The storytelling is lyrical and rich and it transports the reader to the jungles, riverbanks and rice paddies of Cambodia. Ratner does an amazing job of illustrating both the horror of the genocide and the power of hope.

As beautifully written as the book is, I didn't love it. My personal preference is for stories that are driven by plot or dialog. This book is much more introspective and descriptive. I found myself skipping paragraphs, too anxious to find out what would happen next. (For comparative purposes: I had the same problem with Snow Falling on Cedars.)

Final verdict: Beautiful, but not the right book for me. I don't have the right reading temperament for Ratner's slow and deliberate style.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Based on the real life experiences of the author in the 1970's, this novel is about the horror in Cambodia when the communists took over. Like the author, the main character was a child of the privileged class and when the revolution came she was hurtled into a cruel world of poverty and hunger. Her father was imprisoned and never seen again. Her uncle and cousins were sent off to labor camps to die, her baby sister was stricken with a fever and she and her mother were forced into hard labor in the rice fields. I cringed at the dreadfulness of it all and learned more than I ever wanted to know about this Cambodian genocide in which 1.7 million people (21%) of the population lost their lives.

Written in the first person, through the voice of a young girl, the characters come to life and their suffering is incredibly overwhelming in its depiction of displacement, starvation, slave labor and pain. However, there is also a streak of survival instinct in spite of their world bitterly collapsing around them.

I couldn't put this book down and couldn't take my eyes from the page because it was so well written and brought to life a time and a place and some wonderful unforgettable characters. Certainly, the memory of those who have died and suffered at this sad time in history should never be forgotten.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Vaddey Ratner notes that while fictional, many of this book's events actually happened to her during the Khmer Rouge's Cambodian depredations. She made the right choice writing this as a novel, releasing herself from the perceived bounds of absolute truth - while clearly telling a story based on memory and experience. And, releasing the reader from the sometimes too-close proximity of a memoir's real-life author.

Told in the first-person voice of Raami, a young girl, the narrative captivates, heartbreaks, but never feels overpowering or melodramatic. She is a completely believable child narrator, which is an impressive writing achievement. The narration is in a very personal and direct style that lets the story's events carry all the impact. This is most effective during some terrible early occurrences when she behaves like any child would, leading to bad ends.

This also makes it a difficult book to "love" in the conventional way. A few scenes, because the narration is so all-business, are all the more tragic. You want to reach in and stop the events, because you know this happened - if it didn't happen exactly to Ratner as she wrote it, it surely happened to somebody. So I didn't finish this book impressed with Ratner's literary skill as much as sad for all the tragedies that we forget or never notice.

The Cambodian genocide of 1975-79 was a slow-motion crime, somewhat different than the WWII death camps. People were moved from place to place, with the educated core of society eliminated through famine, disease or execution, as the Khmer Rouge attempted to recreate an entirely agricultural peasant society. I've known about it, but very little from up-close accounts. While not a "true" story, I think this gave a clear picture of what went on. It's horrible.
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