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Music of the Ghosts

Review

Music of the Ghosts

When --- and if --- the refugees displaced by the devastating civil war in Syria come back to their homeland, what will they find there, and how will they cope? Returning and rebuilding are likely to come with their own challenges, as illustrated in Vaddey Ratner’s new novel about a different country once wracked by violent internal conflict and ruled by a brutal dictator: Cambodia.

In her 2012 debut, IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN, Ratner, a Khmer Rouge survivor, offered a loosely fictionalized account of life after Pol Pot rose to power. She returns to similar territory in MUSIC OF THE GHOSTS, but here the subject isn’t the war itself, but the aftermath of the terror.

After enduring four years of displacement, endless days spent working in the rice paddies, and the death of nearly her entire family, 13-year-old Suteera and her aunt Amara flee Cambodia when the regime collapses, settling in Minnesota. But time and distance can’t erase disturbing memories, or answer questions about those lost and left behind. Decades later, Teera, now in her 30s and reeling from the death of her beloved aunt, receives a cryptic letter from someone called the Old Musician, who promises he can tell her what happened to her father. Though Teera realizes her father is almost certainly dead, the lack of definitive information on his fate gnaws at her, keeping his disappearance from attaining “that searing ache of a definitive loss.” So she grabs onto the thin line of hope the letter offers, if not for a reunion, at least for closure.

"In language both beautiful and haunting, Ratner captures the way war and violence can rend the psyche of an entire people.... Ratner’s characters may be fictional, but their experiences are based on disturbingly real events. Her book is filled with truth both emotional and factual."

Teera journeys to Phnom Penh to meet the Old Musician. When she arrives, she confronts a chaotic, poverty-stricken country still recovering from the war. As one who escaped the devastation, she’s now an outsider wherever she goes --- not quite fully American when in the US, not completely Khmer when she returns home.

Meanwhile, the Old Musician is attempting to atone for his role in the atrocities. When he was a young man known by the name of Tun, he joined the Khmer Rouge because he wanted to build a better Cambodia, only to have his life destroyed by the forces he helped, in a small way, to unleash.

In lyrical chapters that move seamlessly backward and forward through time, Tun recalls the “ineradicable faith in the future” that led him to join the rebels and the swift realization that he chose the wrong side. His optimistic belief in a brighter world is replaced by a single goal: to survive the war and return to his adopted daughter. But in a world of mass relocations of civilians, forced labor and regular political purges, that simple wish turns out to be treasonous. By the time Teera meets him, Tun’s battered body is a physical manifestation of the damage caused by the Khmer Rouge. His “lesions and scars…intimated the blunt force of ideology, that politics is not mere rhetoric in this place of wars and revolutions and violent coups but a bludgeon with which to forge one’s destiny.”

In language both beautiful and haunting, Ratner captures the way war and violence can rend the psyche of an entire people. Everyone Teera meets during her time in Cambodia is still dealing with the consequences of a reign of terror where somewhere between 13% and 30% of the population died. The events described are so horrifying that someone who opens the book to a page detailing Tun’s experience in a Khmer Rouge training camp or Teera’s father’s time in one of the regime’s prisons might at first think he or she is reading a work of dystopian, not historical, fiction.

Ratner’s characters may be fictional, but their experiences are based on disturbingly real events. Her book is filled with truth both emotional and factual. Most readers won’t be familiar with the ins and outs of Cambodian politics before, during and after the Khmer Rouge, and Ratner embeds some history lessons within her story. The context is useful --- it helps explain, for example, why an empathetic artist like Tun would see Pol Pot’s promise of a Marxist revolution as a viable path forward. Occasionally, however, the summaries of key events read more like excerpts from a term paper than a novel.

“The past…is tricky territory, riddled with potholes and pitfalls and unmarked graves,” Teera realizes once she arrives in Cambodia. Trauma can sometimes be pushed into the background, but it’s never completely erased. A lifetime spent in another country isn’t enough to separate Teera from her homeland, which “will never leave her, even as she tries to peel it from the memory of her skin.” The survivors in MUSIC OF THE GHOSTS may be able to forge new lives, but they cannot go back to a time before the violence --- a powerful reminder that wars do not end when people put down their guns.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on April 14, 2017

Music of the Ghosts
by Vaddey Ratner

  • Publication Date: April 11, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • ISBN-10: 1476795789
  • ISBN-13: 9781476795782