April 11, 2017

Music of the Ghosts - Vaddey Ratner

Touchstone Books, April 11, 2017.


Five Stars


Music of the Ghosts is Ratner’s second novel – her first was the semi-autobiographical work, In the Shadow of the Banyan. This one is populated with fully fictional characters, but based once again in the horrific reality of the Khmer Rouge regime. While Banyan is a story of one family’s survival of the Cambodian genocide, Music of the Ghosts shows us how the survivors struggle to move forward in the aftermath of war.


Suteera was a young girl when she escaped from Cambodia with her aunt – they crossed the border into Vietnam with the help of a selfless soldier who likely died on his next rescue mission. Teera and her aunt Amara were the only survivors from their family – her father went missing first, and others died along the journey to the border. Amara and Teera forged a new life in Minnesota, but when Amara receives a diagnosis of rapidly advancing cancer twenty-five years later, she asks her niece to return her ashes to the family’s temple in Phnom Penh.


When Teera writes to the Wat Nagara temple to tell them of her aunt’s request, she receives a letter back from a man known as the Old Musician. He claims to have information about the end of her father’s life in one of Pol Pot’s prisons, as well as possession of several of Teera’s father’s traditional Cambodian instruments. The Old Musician carries a vast amount of guilt over his role in the genocide, and he has banished himself to the temple, where he plays ceremonial music to earn his keep. He is anxious to see Teera, yet he dreads her reaction to his story, which also includes his lifelong love for her mother.


Twenty-five years after her escape, Teera returns to Cambodia to find a nation in turmoil. Former enemies live side by side as they attempt to reconcile the horrific violence of the past with the desire to mend their country and move forward. Teera meets a young doctor, Narunn, who also lost his entire family during the war – mistrustful at first, Teera is eventually able to face Narunn with an open heart as they heal from the past and forge a new path forward. Ratner writes about the unbelievable loss and horrors of the war in lyrical prose, beautiful for its stark emotion. The future of Teera and Narunn is continually contrasted with the Old Musician’s flashbacks of his past – he and Teera’s parents, like many others, initially embraced the Khmer Rouge promise of independent democracy, only to watch in horror as the regime corrupted itself.


Compared with Ratner’s first novel, I found the adult perspective in this one to lend itself to a more complex, stronger story. With the analyses of Teera and the Old Musician, I felt like I learned much more history from this novel – from the French colonization of Cambodia, to the American bombings and the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Lesser known (at least to me) than the history of Vietnam, Cambodia followed a similar trajectory into war.


At the end of the story, the victims of the Khmer Rouge still await the tribunal that will punish those responsible for crimes of war. The Cambodian people, with Teera and Narunn as their fictional representatives, continue to face the ghosts of the past in order to heal and rebuild. The characters sometimes became overly allegorical, as a vessel for Ratner’s message, but they were strong enough that they still felt completely real and necessary in telling this story.


I received this book from Touchstone Books in exchange for an honest review.

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