Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 336 pages
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.
In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.
Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.
Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1970s Cambodia, has penned an extraordinary tale in Music of the Ghosts. She writes with grace about “questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice in the more everyday settings in which survivors find themselves” (from the afterword). In exploring such questions, Teera, the Old Musician, and young doctor Narunn reflect on personal identity in the face of immeasurable loss. They have been shaped by survival, when so many of those whom they loved did not survive. Music of the Ghosts is a moving tale of resilience and reconciliation.
I have not read Ratner’s first book, In the Shade of the Banyan Tree, but I am certain this book must be a worthy successor. The first aspect of this book that struck me was the vivid prose. Ratner writes with a particular cadence that soothed me from the beginning, despite the subject matter. She does an excellent job at setting a scene. One small scene in particular stood out to me. She described two young monks practicing English at a temple, with a storm approaching. I could hear the sounds she described – rarely do I find prose that successfully reaches beyond the visual to the auditory for me.
The characters are what really gives life to the prose. I found Music of the Ghosts to be a deeply powerful and moving tale. Teera in particular tugged at my heartstrings and brought a few tears to my eyes. She felt like a real woman to me, not a stone cold caricature of a ‘strong’ one. I adored Narunn, a sincere man trying to do the best with what he has. These characters will draw out your compassion. Teera’s dealing with the complexities of survivor’s guilt moved me. In one scene, she wants to stop her car and give money to numerous beggars on the street, in a location so far from anything she can’t imagine how they’re surviving out there. I felt as Teera did in this moment – how can I have so much when others have so little?
The character’s past connections to the Khmer Rouge (as either perpetrators or victims) demonstrate how good and evil cannot be simplified to black and white. The lines between victim and perpetrator can blur. A person can easily shift from being one to the other. Partway through chapter three, I already found the story to be very intense in this manner. Later on in the book, I had a moment of, “Imagine if everyone listened.” What if we listened to voices other than our own? If everyone heard the voices that are too often silenced or ignored? Reading a good story, like this one, can so easily teach empathy to an open mind. Through reading, we can learn about what we didn’t know we didn’t know. This concept, I think, is part of the reason why reading own voices is so important.
I have one mild criticism of the book. The story feels a bit dry at times. I wondered when Teera’s story would pick up again. I set the book aside for a few days, not feeling any rush to finish. But the haunting tale pulled me back as I wondered what the Old Musician would reveal to Teera.
The Bottom Line:
On her website, Ratner notes that Music of the Ghosts address universally significant questions such as, “How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?” Music of the Ghosts clear and emotional take on these questions make it a read worth your time.
- Book webpage (Q&A re: Music of the Ghosts)
- Author interview @ IndyStar
- Review @ Reading with Hippos
- Review @ Ultra Violent Lit
- Review @ USA Today
- Review @ Chicago Tribune