Stories, debut novels and autobiography

Every first novel is an autobiography, disguised or otherwise. That’s the received wisdom, anyway. The first novel to be shared by the Dulwich Booksdebut novel reading group, In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vadday Ratner, was certainly no exception to the rule.

But then, Vadday Ratner had an upbringing more suited to fiction than most of us. Born into a branch of the Cambodian royal family, she and her family were persecuted and almost destroyed by the murderous Khmer Rouge, during the 1975 revolution and the repression that followed. Her story – told as the story of nine-year-old Raami –  is compelling.

I was fascinated and horrified to read about this period and place in history, about which I knew shamefully little. Certain images abide – the matter-of-fact crunching of insects by people half-dead with hunger, the little girl proudly telling the soldiers her father’s real name, not knowing she was condemning him to death by doing so. The strength of the narrative, which showed a good control of pace, pulled me through the novel.

And yet, was it really a novel? Or rather, would it have been better as a memoir, or autobiography? I had trouble with the style of the book, which felt over-written (an abundance of adjectives and adverbs) and  could have benefited from tighter editing. More fundamentally, the voice of the narrator was uneven,  hardly surprising when it attempted to portray both the fanciful nine-year-old at the start of the novel and the suspicious, world-weary survivor she had become four years later. There was no fixed time point from which the narrator looked back at the ordeal, depriving us of a constant perspective or an unambiguously adult voice.

Yet there was much to enjoy in the novel. The girl’s relationship with her mother, freighted with guilt and pain, perhaps needed to be fictionalised in order to be told. The evocation of Cambodia was, according to one of the book group who has visited the country, spot-on. The pacing of the story allowed moments of respite between horror, necessary moments of reflection and calm in what could have been a relentlessly grim read.

I’ve certainly recommended it to people for the strength of the story, and it’s made me want to visit this complex country. I would love to know why Ms Rattner, who has lived in the US since her escape from Cambodia at the end of the war, decided to go down the fictional route.

My own still-in-progress debut thriller, in which the heroine undergoes many perils and displays much courage, is resolutely non-autobiographical. I have never shinned down a drainpipe. I have never outwitted a murderous priest. And I have never, ever taught a class of teenagers about Shakespeare. She’s taller than me, too.

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