Music of the Ghosts

They say you should never judge a book by its cover (or its title, for that matter), but that’s exactly what I did when I stumbled across Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts at a book store one year ago. I first chose Music of the Ghosts precisely because of its intriguing title and cover. I love anything related to music, but I’ve also always been drawn to ghosts – whether in a horror setting or something more like a forgotten dream. The soft, foggy cover suggested the latter, while its bright hues of purple and orange inspired something magical.

As I began reading Music of the Ghosts, it quickly become evident that my judgment had been mostly accurate – though it missed the underlying sorrow that defines the novel. The story follows two main characters with parallel stories unraveling, revealing just how similar their histories are. At the age of 13, Suteera and her aunt Amara escaped their home country, Cambodia, during its horrific Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. After losing everything to war and famine, they rebuilt their lives in America. Now 37 years old, Suteera (now going by Teera) is returning to Cambodia for the first time. A mysterious man known only as the Old Musician has some instruments for her, and may know something about what happened to her father all those years ago.

Over the course of the novel, both Teera’s and the Old Musician’s stories unfold, illuminating the love, pain, and terror that defined their lives in Cambodia up until the Khmer Rouge regime fell. Their histories cross and bend, strikingly similar in parts, as we discover what happened to the Old Musician’s daughter and what fate befell Teera’s father.

The story is moving and tragic, and at times painful to get through. Even as we get to know the main characters’ pasts, Music of the Ghosts is a story about the country and people of Cambodia, and it offers up snapshots of the various ways the survivors have rebuilt their lives, continued to suffer, and found hope for a better future. The book loses a bit of its power during the Second Movement, sometimes straying too far away from the main plot. An unexpected romance blossoms too quickly, causing the story to meander a bit. But the novel eventually regains focus for its powerful end.

One of my favorite things about reading books set in different countries and different times is the chance to learn about another culture, another history. It’s an opportunity to peek inside a new set of experiences and begin to understand another perspective and past. I admit, I knew nothing about Cambodia and its turbulent history prior to reading Music of the Ghosts. This novel illuminates this part of its history with impressive detail and scope, and anyone who wants to understand more about Cambodia and the country’s recent past will gain a lot from reading Music of the Ghosts.

Beyond the story and its themes, one additional aspect of Music of the Ghosts that really struck me was its language. From the very first pages, Music of the Ghosts captures you with the beauty of its prose. The writing style is poetic, lyrical, painting images with the deft choice and arrangement of its words. It’s delicate, yet its cadence pulls you ever farther into its dreamy yet all-too-vivid landscape. As I read the first several chapters, the simple yet evocative language impressed me, so much so that I kept raving to my husband about his need to read this book, if only to marvel at its astounding locution.

Music of the Ghosts is a moving, beautiful, and tragic book. It’s a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

4/5 stars

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