Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel is being widely hailed as a new classic, likened to Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father and another excellent debut from earlier this year, Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. It seems likely to end up on summer reading lists and classroom syllabi.
Accordingly, Simon & Schuster has provided a wonderful collection of extras, including a reader’s guide and an author Q&A, in which Ratner discusses the ways in which the fictional narrator’s experiences parallel her own, despite some changes in the details.
So why write a novel, rather than a nonfiction account? In a letter from the editor we learn that the author “wanted to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art.” Ratner shares even more about her motivations in an extensive Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers interview, where she also reveals that she learned to write by reading voraciously. Elie Wiesel’s Night is one of her touchstones.
Adult/High School–Seven year-old Raami’s world is forever changed when the Khmer Rouge drive her family from their home. Her father is a Cambodian prince, her grandmother a queen, but in the eyes of the black-clad young soldiers, they are merely citizens to be rounded up in the name of the revolution. Forced to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs, they have nothing but one another. But no one can foresee the events to come, as one by one those closest to Raami are taken from her. Ratner’s evocative, lyrical prose transports readers to the Cambodia of her childhood, a land of contemplative Buddhist temples abruptly outlawed and jewel-toned clothing forcibly dyed black. The novel is an utterly engaging portrait of familial love and sacrifice, a bleak story that manages to retain a sense of warmth and optimism through the eyes of precocious young Raami. Teens who enjoy dystopian fiction may be surprised to find a historical novel with familiar themes of violence, destruction, and cruelty in the name of a so-called better society. The Organization promises to provide and take care of its citizens, but it does not. Survival depends on the kindness of strangers. The author carefully balances harsh realities with the touchstones of hope that Raami holds near. Traditional stories of the Buddha comfort her, and her beloved father, she believes, watches over her in the form of the moon. Accessible and profoundly moving, In the Shadow of the Banyan is destined to become a classic.–Paula Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD