Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, (Published August 7th 2012 by Simon & Schuster -first published January 1st 2010) is not a detective novel, there is no corpse, no policemen nor detectives working on a case, this is a novel about genocide. Set in Cambodia, Ratna narrates the story of Raami, a young girl whose life is totally disrupted after the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia to establish a ruthless totalitarian state. Raami’s parents belong to the Royal Family, they have llived through French Colonial rule, the brief monarchy that came with independence and now they, together with thousands of others are to be “re-educated” or exterminated by the Khmer Rouge regime.
Moved into the country they become slaves in the machinery of state power. The family must avoid attracting any attention, or allowing a French exclamation reveal their origins as belonging to the well educated, liberal thus “dangerous and traitorous”class.
They are watched over by the state, but worse they, like everybody else in the forced labour camps, are subject to being spied upon by family, friends and neighbours, local vigilante groups often resulting in betrayal and death.
The novel is based on the life of the author who finally found refuge in the United States with her mother. As Ratna says, all the names in the novel are fictitious except that of her father who sacrificed his life to save the family.
The narrative style is deceptively simple yet intensely lyrical when Raami isolates herself from the horror around her by re-telling herself the stories her father told her. For the reader, these stories polarize themselves to the vicious regime of the Khmer Rouge. Thus the novel moves in memory from the colonial period, to the postcolonial liberal monarchy and the final mayhem of Cambodia in the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge.