Stories of political witness recounted by children are rare and sometimes extraordinary. “In the Shadow of the Banyan,’’ Vaddey Ratner’s first book, is an autobiographical novel about Raami, a 7-year-old with polio, torn from her extended royal family in the mid-1970s during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The book opens as the royal family’s happy New Year’s preparations are interrupted by shouting outside their gates. Raami’s father, Prince Sisowath Ayuravann, who has just returned precipitously from his morning walk and declares to his wife, “The streets are filled with people, Aana. Homeless, hungry, desperate . . . ”
Aana intends to hold the compound together by maintaining normal domestic rhythms, so holiday preparations continue. She is distressed about the lotuses in their garden, “ ‘It is so hot and now they’ve closed again.’ She sighed. Lotuses were her favorite blossoms, and even though they were flowers for the gods, Mama always asked for an offering to herself every morning. ‘I was hoping to have at least one open bloom.’ ”
Ratner vividly renders the family’s sumptuous, elegant life. The table is bountiful with mangoes, papayas, mangosteens, sticky rice, lotus-seed porridge, mushroom omelets, baguettes, and beef noodle soup topped with coriander leaves and anise stars. Everyone is graceful and pleasing to the eye. Mama wears a lace blouse and a sapphire Phamuong skirt, a champak blossom at the nape of her neck, and a ring of jasmine in her chignon. As Aunt Tata says, “Our family, Raami, is like a bouquet, each stem and blossom perfectly arranged.”
The family is shocked when a soldier bursts in demanding that they leave straight away. They pack swiftly for their rural estate and drive through the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh in their BMW. “Voices echoed from every direction through bullhorns. ‘DON’T STOP! KEEP MOVING! THE ORGANIZATION WILL PROVIDE FOR YOU! THE ORGANIZATION WILL LOOK FOR YOUR LOST RELATIVES! KEEP MOVING!”
Thus begins the years-long ordeal which takes Raami into a distant countryside where she watches one relative after another disappear, including her father. Her dwindling family struggles with arduous work, meager food, and inadequate shelter. Mama sells her jewelry piece by precious piece to sustain them. Still, they almost starve. Exhausted, they carefully traverse bomb-cratered and body-strewn fields. Always Raami maintains a passionate, almost religious, conviction about Papa’s return.
The impetus for Ratner’s book is her own visceral memory of the terrifying passage from cosseted youth to homeless, crippled adolescent on the verge of death. The details about Raami’s odyssey and flight to safety are excruciating, yet the story lacks immediacy because Ratner clings to tales from family and friends rather than summoning story through imagination. As Ratner says in a “conversation” printed with the novel, she didn’t want family members forgotten. “I wished still to reinvoke the words and thoughts they’d shared with me. I felt compelled to speak of their lives, their hopes and dreams.” These are worthy motives, but ones perhaps more compatible with memoir than with the scriptless flight required of successful literary fiction. Like other novels relying too particularly on remembered experience, “In the Shadow of the Banyan,’’ veers into sentimentality and didacticism. This isn’t a fully imagined narrative so much as a (justifiable) indictment of the Khmer Rouge and an (understandable) hagiography of Ratner’s own father.
“In the Shadow of the Banyan’’ will be widely reviewed and read. Simon and Schuster has pushed it hard in all the right places including BookExpo America. It’s on O Magazine’s summer reading list. Many Americans will encounter Cambodian history and confront the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge for the first time, and this is all to the good.
Yet this story could have been told more powerfully with a more dexterous approach to content and style. Even as Ratner dramatizes some moments of recent history, she glosses over critical context. Her climax and ending are sketchy. Equally problematic is the proliferation of flowery metaphors and similes. Raami longs for her father, “. . . we couldn’t bear to leave the place where Papa had last been, where the ground echoed with his footsteps, the trees heaved his sighs and the pond mirrored his tranquility.” Raami witnesses loss over a child’s death when a man settles a girl’s body into a coffin, “. . . and as he did so a teardrop fell from his eye and rolled down her cheek so it looked as if [she] were crying for herself, as if she grieved her own death.”
In contrast, other recent historical fictions shine — books that also confront brutal ideologues, national upheaval, and family tragedy: “The Vagrants,’’ Yiyun Li’s novel about the Cultural Revolution; ”The Good Muslim,’’ Tahmina Anam’s novel about a family during and after the bloody transition from East Pakistan to Bangladesh; and “We Should Never Meet,’’ Aimee Phan’s story collection about orphans and others at the end of the Vietnam War. These absorbing, narratives move readers with graceful language and nuanced characterization, enriched both by immersion in and distance from their difficult subjects.
Valerie Miner’s new novel, “Traveling with Spirits,” will appear next year. She teaches at Stanford University, and her website is www.valerieminer.com.