Music of the Ghosts, by Vaddey Ratner

Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts is the story of two parallel lives that were caught by the apocalyptic violence of the Khmer Rouge but managed to survive, albeit with deep psychological wounds. Music of the Ghosts moves back and forth between the late 1970s and the present day as these two people—a woman who fled to the United States as a child and an old man who fought with the Khmer Rouge—reveal their connections to each other and seek healing.

Suteera fled with her mother when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city of Phnom Penh in 1975. Shortly thereafter, she and her aunt were helped over the border into Thailand. Thirty years later, Suteera receives a letter from the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Phnom Penh. An old musician has a legacy for her from her father, who disappeared shortly before the Khmer Rouge takeover. When she reluctantly returns to Cambodia, Suteera finds herself awash in unexpressed grief and memories. The old musician, it turns out, knew her father from before the civil war and was imprisoned with him in one of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious prisons. Not only does the musician have a legacy to pass on, he also needs to confess what he did to survive to Suteera.

While Suteera copes with her past and present, the old musician gets to tell his story—from his decision to join the Khmer Rouge to his ultimate betrayal by the Organization. I found these parts harrowing but fascinating. I’ve never read anything, fiction or otherwise, about the Khmer Rouge. Given how terrifying and brutal the regime was, fiction was a soft landing for me. Music of the Ghosts gives us an ant’s eye view of those bloody years. Ratner’s characters do not try to explain much of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge. Rather, this book presents that time as chaotic, deadly insanity.

The old musician’s flashbacks are the most gripping part of this book. However, much of this book is about how he and Suteera have learned to make space in their psyches for those terrible years. They haven’t forgiven themselves or the Organization for what happened. I don’t blame them a bit, which is why I found the ending of this book too easy considering what the protagonists had been through. I’m not about to say what a survivor should feel; I know that I’m not a very forgiving person myself so my perspective is skewed. My problem with the way the book wrapped was that it was rushed.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.



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