Posted on March 20, 2013


And so to C… There’s a nice spread across the continents, a few places I’ve visited, and some I’d have trouble putting on the map with any accuracy. But first, a little backward glance…the sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that I missed Brunei. This is because, having not been able to make a decision between two average options, I found a third – a history book that looks interesting but isn’t published until June.   We’ll have to do a detour later on.

245803-banyan-tree-growing-through-ancient-temple--siem-reap-cambodiaYou don’t have to cut a tree down to get at the fruit: Cambodian proverb

Before I get into Vaddey Ratner’s, In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree, I would like to reassure you all that the book after this one is not about war, but is a captivating political satire from Cameroon, Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala. So hold fast, lighter reads are coming.    In the meantime, back to Cambodia.  It was difficult to find modern Cambodian fiction; there are any number of memoires about the Pol Pot era, but not many novels.  Given the shadow-length of Pol Pot’s brutality, extant fiction, unsurprisingly, also deals with (des)Potic themes.  While I know it’s complacent, spoiled and unfeeling to say my heart sank at the thought of more war, repression and heroism, my heart wasn’t leaping approaching this book. One begins to wonder whether there has been one day (an hour even would be nice) in recent history when peace has broken out all over the world.

With this world-weariness in mind, it’s perhaps unfair to judge Ratner’s novel.  Sometimes timing is everything – I loved D. H. Lawrence at 16 but find him totally unpalatable now, although I’m finally coming round to George Eliot.  This is not a bad book – why does that make it sound so much as though it is?  On the contrary, it has a truth and authenticity in its description of people, places and experiences.   By any measure, the story (which mirrors Ratner’s own) of seven-year old princess Raami’s family’s struggle to survive forced labour, starvation, execution and bereavement upon bereavement, is masterfully written.  The early descriptions of life in Phnom Penh are enchanting and offer a wistful glimpse of a life that no longer exists.  The use of a child as the protagonist not only means that Ratner can write from direct experience, but also allows for an interesting view of a political situation that is hard to understand for the adults, but as impenetrable to Raami as it is to us.     If I have a criticism, without giving anything away, it’s that the ending comes too quickly and too neatly. It might be one occasion when an epilogue or even a planned trilogy may have worked better.  As it stands, it feels as though Ratner runs out of steam.   My other issue with the book (I feel mean writing this, especially as Ratner was 11 when she arrived in the U.S. not speaking a word of English) is that it just feels a little too mannered. It’s as though it’s been written with the help of a writing class – too clean, picked over, overly wrought.   It’s like listening to Gwyneth Paltrow’s near pitch-perfect English accent in Emma. It’s right, but there’s something brittle and self-conscious about it.