Ratner’s avowedly autobiographical first novel describes her family’s travails during the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s.
Despite the lingering effects of childhood polio, 7-year-old Raami is living a charmed existence. Her father is a minor royal prince and a sensitive, even saintly, poet, a member of the wealthy intelligentsia. Raami and her baby sister, Radana, are cared for by their beautiful young mother and a household of kindly, devoted servants in an atmosphere of privilege and also spiritual grace. Then comes the government overthrow. At first Raami’s father is hopeful that the new leaders will solve the injustice, but soon the new government’s true nature reveals itself. Like most of the city’s residents, Raami’s extended family, including aunts, uncle, cousins and grandmother, are soon ordered out of Phnom Penh. They seek refuge at their weekend house but are driven from there as well. Part of the mass exodus, they try not to draw attention to their royal background, but Raami’s father is recognized and taken away, never to be seen again. Raami, her mother and Radana end up in a rural community staying in the primitive shack of a kindly, childless couple. There is little food and the work is backbreaking. During monsoon season, Radana perishes from malaria, and Raami blames herself because she did not protect her adequately from the mosquitoes. Raami and her mother are ordered to another community. For four years, one terrible event follows another, with small moments of hope followed by cruelty and despair. But her mother never stops protecting Raami, and although both grieve deeply for their lost loved ones, both find untapped stores of resilience. While names are changed (though not Ratner’s father’s name, which she keeps to honor his memory) and events are conflated, an author’s note clarifies how little Ratner’s novel has strayed from her actual memory of events.
Often lyrical, sometimes a bit ponderous: a painful, personal record of Cambodia’s holocaust.