In the Shadow of the Banyan

Since it’s International Women’s Day, it makes sense to talk about a book featuring an incredibly strong girl.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a friend that always chooses the saddest books in the world. If you’ve read a book that broke your heart, it’s probably her favourite. And I’m not saying that these books aren’t good because they totally are. There’s something about a book that makes you cry your eyes out that stays with you.

Just that sometimes I don’t want to read a sad book because I don’t like being sad.

That said, I just finished a very sad book: In the Shadow of the Banyan. It was leant to me by a co-worker who prefaced the hand off with “I’m warning you, do not read this book in public because it made me cry my eyes out. I was sobbing hysterically at the end and you don’t want to do that on the bus.”

She’s totally right. I don’t want to sob hysterically on the bus. That’s never fun.

But a curious thing happened: I didn’t.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is the story of 7 year old Raami who is part of a branch of the Cambodian royal family when the Khmer Rouge show up in 1975. They force everyone out of the cities and into the country so that everyone can become rice farmers and share all the resources (I’m paraphrasing). They also separate parents from their children and do their best to brutally root out those that are educated or different in any way. This includes Raami’s father, a member of the royal family as well as a poet.

It’s a beautifully written book about the worst and the best in humanity. Nothing good happens to Raami and her family in the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge are in power. They lose everything. And yet, in the end, there is a teeny tiny seed of hope.

I think what makes this story so much more powerful is that it is basically the story of the author’s life – she is Raami. More or less; she couldn’t trust all her memories of that time to be completely accurate so she wrote under the veil of fiction.

(Remember James Frey? No one wants to go there again)

I spent a lot of this book on the verge of tears. Eyes brimming, waiting for them to spill over in open acknowledgement that the book I was reading was horribly sad. But it only happened once or twice and the ending did not leave me devastated.

Which is probably a good thing, because I was totally on the bus when I finished it.

Maybe I chose to dwell on that one fluttering of hope, that everything would turn out OK for Raami and her mother. Or maybe I had spent 315 pages waiting to be completely gutted, and when the moment came it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Either way, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an incredible story written by an incredible lady.

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