Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Maturity Level: 4
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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.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted, summer read, look somewhere else. If you want a straight-forward story about modern-day Cambodia, look somewhere else. Music of the Ghosts is a sad, meandering story about the worst times in Cambodian history. The writing is lovely and it will make you think, but I won’t lie to you, it was a difficult read.
Music of the Ghosts is similar in purpose to The Kite Runner or Night. It seeks to make sense of tragedy, both personal and national, and to move forward with a sense of hope for the future.
However, it was a difficult story to follow. The story is told from the perspectives of two characters, Teera and the Old Musician. The narrative alternates between their POVs each chapter. However, sometimes chapters are written in the present, and sometimes written as flashbacks. Often chapters would have flashbacks within flashbacks, or start in the present and end in a flashback. And there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to when a chapter would take place. This made the timeline unclear. As a person who is completely unfamiliar with Cambodian history/current events (having been unaware a Cambodian genocide even existed prior to reading the jacket for this book) I had a hard time piecing together history based on this meandering story-telling method.
Equally disorienting was the fact that the entire book is in the present tense.
To be fair, it is a completely personal preference to not care for present tense. It always bothers me, even when it’s done well. But there is something especially strange about a person having a flashback in the present tense. I don’t know about you, but when I remember things I remember them with a past-tense inner dialogue.
Nor did the narrators have unique voices. I read one review, in fact, which complained that the characters lacked even simple character traits. They seemed instead to be telling a story that happened to someone else, rather than to themselves.
The writing was undoubtedly beautiful. Breathtaking prose that both broke your heart and filled it with hope. The descriptions, when they came, were vivid and vibrant. It was introspective and thought-provoking. Does being on the wrong side of history automatically make you evil? Is forgiveness possible when you’ve lost everything? Where is home when you’re a refugee?
While I might not have a clear idea of Cambodian history coming out of this book, I do have a clear idea that their history is full of tragedy. One revolution followed another, each one no better than the last. Senseless violence followed senseless violence. But despite all of that, the Cambodian people remain a loving and positive culture. Their hope for a better future has still not been destroyed, and they continue to take care of each other.