In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was a bit slow during the first half and the prose at times painfully grandiloquent to the point where it felt forced. I really had to will myself through the first half of the book, knowing it would take a turn at some point given the novel’s subject matter. Having just finished, I think the contrast between Raami’s flowery recount of life in the first half of the book was written intentionally to show the effects of war and genocide. The closer you get to the end of the story, the more grisly the depiction of life through her eyes. Despite the fact that the narration was that of a seven year old girl, I read the book as more of the author’s memoir and her retrospection. As a Cambodian with parents who also survived the Khmer Rouge Regime, I initially started this book with some reservations and prejudgment, but overall I actually really enjoyed it and felt it was authentic to the country and its people. I saw a lot of my mother in Aana, Raami’s mother. In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story that focuses more on the human spirit rather than a deep dive into the hellish nightmare that Cambodia endured. In this sense, it remains true to the experience because ultimately the human spirit and our tenacity to live is the only story that matters in the thick of devastation and persecution.
When we were younger, and our heart breaks, it felt like the end of the world–as if the ground would open up and swallow us whole in chaos.
When we are older, we know that the world will not end and that indeed, life goes on. But with age, so does our pain mature in that the feeling of hurt is rooted in reality. The reality is that as days pass, we are psychologically compelled to forget and mend ourselves.
In this sense, our heart heals but instead we are introduced to a new type of pain. This pain does not grab you in one fell swoop, but rather gnaws at you with numbing persistence. The sorrow in understanding that what once was beautiful no longer exists, and continues to fade. The disappointment in knowing with every morning, it will continue to become a distant memory, in knowing that it will be replaced. There is pain in wondering how something and someone who made us so happy could become nothing more than a faint imprint on our lives. The pain in not wanting to let it go, but having no other choice.
People believe hope to be a good thing. They associate it with positivity and optimism, but hope is also the act of wanting the impossible. It can be misleading in that though it offers a momentary sense of well-being and peace, in the end hope is hope–not a guarantee.
I’ve learned that hope is often times better left unengaged. In a way, all hope is false because it is an ideal of what we want. We hope because we know the likelihood of attaining the object of our wishful thinking is improbable.
But the devastating thing about hope is that we cannot control our tendency do it. It is human nature that despite the chances, we hold on to it, no matter how tiny the sliver. Perhaps it’s a psychological defense mechanism to prevent people from spiraling into despair. If there is hope, we will always struggle to keep going, keep surviving.