Summary and book reviews of Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the Ghosts

by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Apr 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Chris Fredrick

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Book Summary

An astonishing and powerful new novel from PEN/Hemingway finalist Vaddey Ratner.

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.

Arriving in Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of atrocity live side by side. Soon she meets a young doctor who carries his own memories of that time but also shows her a beautiful country on a fragile path of reconciliation. Meanwhile, the Old Musician anticipates the confession he must make.

Together Teera and the Old Musician confront the truth of their intertwined past, weaving a melody that will leave both transformed, and freeing Teera to find a new home and a new love in the places she least expects.

He feels his way in the confined space of the wooden cottage, hands groping in the dark, searching among the shadows through the blurred vision of his one good eye for the sadiev. The lute has called out to him in his dream, plucking its way persistently into his consciousness, until he's awake, aware of its presence beside him. His fingers find the instrument. It lies aslant on the bamboo bed, deeply reposed in its dreamlessness. His fingers inadvertently brush against the single copper string, coaxing a soft ktock, similar to the click of a baby's tongue. The Old Musician is almost blind, his left eye damaged long ago by a bludgeon and his right by age. He relies much on his senses to see, and now he sees her, feels her presence, not as a ghostly apparition overwhelming the tiny space of his cottage, nor as a thought occupying his mind, but as a longing on the verge of utterance, incarnation. He feels her move toward him. She who will inherit the sadiev, this ancient ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Throughout Music of the Ghosts, Ratner is thematically focused on the healing from "the killing fields"—for individuals, the country, and the culture. This recovery requires a balance of punishment and forgiveness. Certainly there are individuals who are guilty and need to be brought to justice. But how many others lie somewhere between guilt and innocence? As the two voices weave in and out of each other's past and present, Music of the Ghosts gives a nuanced and intimate view of Cambodia and its history. We see the strands of choice and circumstance laid bare and can only marvel at the resilience of the Khmer people.   (Reviewed by Chris Fredrick).

Full Review (859 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Ratner, who lived through the rule of the Khmer Rouge herself, weaves a moving tale of hope and heartbreak that will accompany readers long after they finish the last page.

Booklist

Starred Review. The juxtaposition is unnerving and powerful as the reader is transported from scenes of unbearable torture to glimpses of monks arriving at a temple, their saffron robes 'like a row of candle flames moving across the land.' Ratner, herself a Cambodian refugee, has penned another haunting, unforgettable novel.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Lush with tropical heat and heated emotions ... impossible to put down.

Author Blurb Madeleine Thien, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Music of the Ghosts is a novel of extraordinary humanity in the face of unforgivable culpability ... Vaddey Ratner speaks to the choices confronting all of us, and she does so with compassion, forewarning and courageous wisdom.

Author Blurb Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
A book like this doesn't come around very often. I hope everyone will read it.

Author Blurb Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters and The Forgetting Tree
A powerful examination of the burdens of survival. Ratner writes with precision and lyricism about lives damaged in one of the darkest episodes in history. A timely, redemptive work.

Author Blurb Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Music of the Ghosts is a moving and often gripping exploration of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath. Ratner relentlessly shows the devastating impact of traumatic history on families and the nation, but leaves us with a carefully measured hope for insight and renewal.

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Beyond the Book

Traditional Cambodian Music

Traditional Cambodian music plays a key role in Music of the Ghosts. Hearing it triggers memories for both of the story's main characters, and three hand-made instruments—a single-stringed lute, an oboe, and a drum—set the plot in motion.

Music and Buddhism have a strong connection; music is sometimes seen as a ceremonial offering to the Buddha. An estimated 95% of Cambodians are Buddhist today, and the roots of Buddhism date back to the 5th century. Over that long history, Buddhist songs have been adapted for use in ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, playing an integral role in common cultural practices.

The lyrics of traditional musical pieces often have a moral or religious theme. The smoat (also smaut or smot) ...

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