I've been looking forward to reading this novel for a while, even if other books kept getting in the way. I would like to visit Cambodia one day, mostly to visit Angkor Wat, and a friend of mine lives there. As a result I was very interested to read about this darker period of Cambodian history which I had only a vague inkling of.
Ratner is a descendant of one of the Cambodian kings so this novel is very much drawn on her actual experiences when the Revolutionary soldiers took over Cambodia. However since she was five when they took over in 1975, she chose to fictionalize her experience which would allow her to streamline her story and simplify the large family she had. Overall, I think the real life story is fascinating, and there are certainly parts of the novel that were riveting, but in the end, I think I was hoping for more from this.
Raami, the novel's seven year old narrator, has lived a life of privilege, surrounded by beauty with her mother, poet-prince father and younger sister. Up to this point, her largest struggle has been childhood polio which left her with a limp and a weak leg. When the Khmer Rouge take over, her family is forced to evacuate the capital, and relocate. Her father gives himself up to protect his family, since he is the most recognizable of the family. Raami, her sister and her mother are separated from the rest of the family and moved in with an older couple in the country, though they are fortunate with this, as Pok and Mae are a couple that desperately wanted children, and are more than happy to treat this broken family as their own.
While I hadn't read about Khmer Rouge or the Democratic Kampuchea before, many of the themes were familiar from stories of other Communist revolutions, especially Maoist China. The difference is that this uprising seemed to run on an extreme scale and a condensed time line, so that within only a short four year period, there appeared to be several different purges that are similar to ones that occurred over a longer period in China. However, the fact that the Revolutionaries wanted to change farming practices to be more productive without listening to the farmers' advice is reminiscent of the policies leading to the Great Famine in China. The way more radical members of the party turn on others who were more idealistic and fair rather than cut throat and opportunistic also rings familiar. It is sad to see history repeat itself in different locations. Estimates believe that between one and three million people died in this four year regime, equaling about a quarter to a third of the population.
The background of the story is heartbreaking, and some of the scenes and experiences of Raami are as well, especially regarding her family. By the end, she basically retreats into herself to survive. Yet despite this, I don't feel like this novel or story affected me the way it could have, and I think it may be the writing style. There are lots of references to poetry given the father's history, but that alone could have certainly enhanced a stark and devastating story. Instead, there was just something about the novel that felt more cerebral and kept me at a distance rather than truly making me care as much as I should have about the characters. Perhaps there was too much detail, too much description of some things over others. I'm not entirely sure, because the scenes that work really work. Unfortunately, I haven't read any other books, fiction or nonfiction, about Cambodia so I can't compare, but as far as books about oppressive regimes there are better ones out there. This one isn't completely without merit, but it wouldn't be among the first I'd recommend.