Reading guide for Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

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Music of the Ghosts

by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner X
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 336 pages
    Apr 3, 2018, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Chris Fredrick

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


As Music of the Ghosts opens, Teera's beloved aunt Amara, the only link to her traumatic childhood escape from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide, has just passed away. Now, she must return to her homeland to rediscover a family legacy.

At age thirty-seven, Teera is in many ways a stranger to this new Cambodia and the stories it holds. In addition to fulfilling her promise to return her aunt's ashes to Phnom Penh, she has been called by a letter from a half-blind man, the Old Musician, who is searching for a peace he can't find in the temple compound where he earns his keep by playing for ceremonies and funerals. Still, the Old Musician and the young woman are bound by history, and the story of the three instruments that are her birthright.

In this lyrical and poignant novel (the follow-up to the author's bestselling In the Shadow of the Banyan), the heartbreak of the Old Musician's past intertwines with Teera's own voyage of self-discovery, as questions of past trauma, present justice, and the legacy of love change both of them forever.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

  1. Teera feels sure that Amara has had to live with a"divided self" since fleeing her homeland and coming to live in Minnesota. In what ways does Teera, herself, live with an incomplete sense of her identity?
  2. When she first visits Wat Nagara, Teera panics, feeling sorrowful and isolated."She wanted to be alone with the ghosts, to seek communion with her loved ones. Instead she came face to face with her aloneness, saw it reflected wholly, indelibly, in the engraved invocation." Compare these two kinds of solitude. Why is one so much more painful for her than the other?
  3. Among the many parallels between the musicians' lives, both Sokhon and Tun abandon their young daughters on the eve of war. Review each father's reasons for doing so. Is this abandonment more cruel or more kind?
  4. Compare the ways in which the novel's three main female characters, Channara, Amara, and Suteera, deal with the trauma of the Cambodian genocide. What are the"breaking points" for their grief? Would you characterize some of the women as stronger than others?
  5. How does Mr. Chum become a father figure for Teera during her visit to Cambodia? Describe the many ways the novel invokes the meaning of family, disrupted and recreated.
  6. "The hues of one love simmer in another." There are many layered relationships in the novel, in which certain figures become stand-ins or foils for another. Choose a few pairings to discuss. Some ideas include: Channara/Teera, Sokhon/Tun, Teera/Sita, Teera/Lah, and Narunn/The Old Musician.
  7. Several times in the novel, Teera's first encounters are infused with questions from the past, as in her descriptions of meeting the Old Musician and Dr. Narunn. How does the author's writing convey this interplay of perception, hope, and memory? What does it reveal about the characters?
  8. Much of the novel explores how we adapt to and survive in the face of inhumanity. Still, it doesn't sugarcoat the lasting effects of fear, desperation, and ruthlessness on its characters' psyches. Would you say that Music of the Ghosts has an optimistic message?
  9. "Foreigners have often said ours is a 'culture of impunity.' An English phrase, as you know... . What does it really mean?" Discuss the abbot's question. Judging by Ratner's description in the book, would you describe the Cambodian culture as such?
  10. One of Music of the Ghosts' most resonant themes is that of justice: what it entails, and what its limits are. What is your definition of justice? Is there a difference between justice and retribution, as the Old Musician suggests?
  11. Consider the modern children in the book: the young monks, Lah, and Makara, the young addict-turned-novice. How are they affected by the legacy of the war and genocide?
  12. The Old Musician feels responsible for Sokhon's fate, and a single question has tormented him for decades. Was he right to do what he did in Slak Daek? What would you have done in the same situation? The question is a good one for debate.

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Read an English translation of Arthur Rimbaud's poem Guerre, which makes such a strong impression on Tun as a student at Chomroeun Vichea high school. What light does it shed on the character of the young Tun, or the Old Musician he becomes?
  2. Sense memories of Cambodia as it was before the Khmer Rouge are incredibly important to all of the book's characters. If you're fortunate enough to live in a town or city with a Cambodian restaurant, consider having them cater your book club with Khmer delicacies. If the closest Cambodian eatery is too far away, try your hand at some simple snacks with easy-to-find ingredients, like this classic iced coffee drink ( or a banana rice pudding ( To listen to the sounds of the traditional Khmer instruments described in the novel, including the ksae diev (lute) and sralai (oboe), a good beginning is The Music of Cambodia: Solo Instrumental Music, available for ordering at You can also listen to the Khmer rock ballad that Narunn and Teera sing to each other,"Allo Oun, Allo Bong" at
  3. In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner's first novel, is based on the author's own childhood experiences surviving the Khmer Rouge regime. Visit her website at to watch her describe her effort to transform tragedy into art (the video in under Books > In the Shadow of the Banyan), listen to and read her interviews with NPR and others (under Press > Interviews), or read her short essays on storytelling, imagination, and human rights (under Press > Vaddey's Writing).
  4. View the collection of short videos providing vignettes of contemporary life in Phnom Penh at Select one to share with your book group, and explain why you chose it.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Touchstone. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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Beyond the Book:
  Traditional Cambodian Music

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