I’m a little late writing this post. Normally I don’t make excuses, we all have lives, so we all understand. The truth is though I was sick. It was my dad’s birthday. I had to attend a baby shower. And an important meeting came up that really was one of my more successful social interactions last week. Is that enough excuses to get me off the hook for being a week late on my January Book Club post? Well, enough about me. How did this month’s In the Shadow of the Banyan measure up to my Book Club’s standards?
At first look I believe my book club readers were on the fence about the subject matter: it is about a little girl in the midst of a war, a war we as Americans don’t know much about. War is never a boring subject though, especially for women living in the war free Americas for the last 100+ years. In the Shadow of the Banyan certainly can’t be accused of being unrelatable either. What woman can’t relate to a seven-year old protagonist, whether as a mother or as another female?
A few of my fellow book clubbers had read about the Cambodian Civil War previously but for the most part it’s a fascinating place that remains mysterious simply because not much is written on that part of Southeast Asia. The stakes for the protagonist were high – she was separated from much of her family – in fact, only her and her mother survived of over a dozen family members. The reader’s stake comes into play with why the book was so enjoyable to share:
As a fictionalized account of real events in the author’s life it was fun to try to decide for yourself what felt real and what felt made up. It certainly wasn’t a classic but almost felt like it could become one with time as it straddled between fiction and non-fiction. The best part was that it fit our book club trends to a T – an intriguing take on non-fiction – fictionalizing it!
So did my writing partner enjoy sharing In the Shadow of the Banyan with our Book Club? Yes, she did actually. One woman thanked her for choosing this book. It wasn’t one she’d have chosen for herself, she said, but she found herself profoundly affected by the girl’s story and the beautiful way she wrote it.
What she’s talking about is narrative style. To put it simply it’s the distinctive use of words in narrating a story. This distinctive use of words is the dialogue of the narrating character. Many times it’s the very real person to be found within the words that draws in readers. In the Shadow of the Banyan Raami is a seven-year old girl with an amazing knowledge of Cambodian folklore and stories. She grew up at the knee of her poet father and loved the beauty of words with the same star-crossed passion as he had for the written form. He’s her favorite person but by far not the only storyteller in her life as her nanny, Milk Mother, also was a prolific teller of myths, to the point she’d reference whether she’d heard “this version” before.
All this personality comes out through her narrative style. I talk a lot about this “dialogue of character” because if done with balance and consistency you need nothing else to establish your protagonist. In spite of her very adult way with words you totally believe Raami would have this lyrical view of the world even in the midst of war. Because it had everything to do with seeing the beauty around her and nothing to do with innocence or worldliness her age didn’t come into play. We didn’t find any conflict with the way Raami presented herself to us; we knew from her background, from her family, from her idyllic childhood that her perspective was part of who Raami is even at seven years old.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautiful rendition of narrative style embodying a protagonist. To view war through this lens is a pleasure even as our heart bleeds for her past. For a book club selection during a year of non-fiction picks this was a masterful way to start 2014.
If you’d love to read excerpts from the book that illustrate Raami’s voice as one as lyrical as an angel (or a tevoda in Cambodian speak) click over to page 2.