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“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.” (Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize )
"Music of the Ghosts is a novel of extraordinary humanity in the face of unforgivable culpability. Here, acts of friendship transform into acts of rebellion, and storytelling reveals not only the past, but this moment, when reconciliation and forgiveness are so desperately needed. Vaddey Ratner speaks to the choices confronting all of us, and she does so with compassion, forewarning and courageous wisdom." (Madeleine Thien, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing )
“Few atrocities compare with the almost unimaginable devastation brought to Cambodia by Pol Pot. But Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, has not only created here an unforgettable vision of revolution and genocide, but also a moving portrayal of lives interwoven by loss, Buddhist wisdom and, most important of all, redemption. Music of the Ghosts is a powerful performance.” (Charles Johnson, author of The Way of the Writer and Middle Passage )
“Vaddey Ratner’s new novel, Music of the Ghosts, is an extraordinary achievement. It is deeply haunting in its evocation of place, profound in the directness with which it confronts age old questions of guilt, regret, and loss, and staggeringly beautiful in its masterful lyricism. A book like this doesn’t come around very often. I hope everyone will read it.” (Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds )
"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." (Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters and the Forgetting Tree )
"Lush with tropical heat and heated emotions...impossible to put down." (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)
"Powerful...haunting, unforgettable." (Booklist, starred review)
“Ratner’s sophomore title should place her squarely alongside Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writers who have miraculously rendered inhumanity into astonishingly redemptive literary testimony.” (Library Journal)
“Captivating . . . a tragic odyssey of love, loss, and forgiveness in the wake of unspeakable horrors. . . . [Ratner] weaves a moving tale of hope and heartbreak that will accompany readers long after they finish the last page.” (Publishers Weekly)
"Ratner stirs feeling--sorrow, sympathy, pleasure--through language so ethereal in the face of dislocation and loss that its beauty can only be described as stubborn....Music of the Ghosts has itself been fashioned by a writer scarred by war, a writer whose ability to discern the poetic even in brutal landscapes and histories may be the gift that helped her reassemble the fragments of a self and a life after such shattering suffering." (The New York Times Book Review)
"A sensitive, melancholy portrait of the inheritance of survival--the loss and pain as well as the healing....an affecting novel, filled with sorrow and a tender, poignant optimism." (USA Today)
"The deeper I read into Music of the Ghosts, the more engrossed I became in the tangled skeins that define her characters' lives, in the history that her fiction illuminates, in the perceptions that could break a reader's heart...That's the stuff of war, and Ratner does not hold back....But she is equally committed to revealing, for us, the endless ways that families can be forged and broken hearts held." (Chicago Tribune)
“Themes of loss and hope, survivors and the metaphorical ghosts that follow them, crescendo into a rich finale celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the permanence of love.... Readers will shed happy and sad tears as they savor this reminder that regardless of past hurts, life is ours to live.” (Shelf Awareness)
“A poignant new novel focusing not on the horrors themselves (as was the focus of her fictional debut), but of the implications and stakes for survivors.” (Harper's Bazaar Online)
“Her lavish storytelling — complete with pure, honest language and lush, stunning description — is how Ratner will draw readers into her intricately crafted story. Her distinctive, vivid characters and authentic scenes of both peace and war are the highlights of the story. Her skillful weaving of the past and present lives of both Teera and the Old Musician, strung together by poignant musical references, will mesmerize readers. A story that both captures and reveals the heart of its characters, Ratner’s latest is a beautiful gem of a read.” (RT Book Reviews)
"Lyrical...beautiful and haunting...filled with truth both emotional and factual." (Book Reporter)
"Told with careful lyricism...Occasionally calling to mind Things Fall Apart, another novel about collapsed societies...evokes a world with ghosts aplenty, but far less apt by Ratner's hand to be dismissed as a sideshow." (BookPage)
"A mellifluous composition for two voices in echoing counterpoint." (Smithsonian BookDragon)
“A timely and haunting narrative about the lives facing so many refugees, this riveting novel couldn't have come at a better time.” (Bustle.com)
About the Author
- ASIN : B01HMXUYEE
- Publisher : Atria Books; Reprint edition (April 11, 2017)
- Publication date : April 11, 2017
- Language : English
- File size : 9776 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 337 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #353,951 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The Khmer term pralung is often translated as spirit, but spirit covers a lot of territory and Ratner, to her credit, doesn’t let the reader off so easily. Pralung means the unique and complex spiritual essence of each individual life. Spiritual DNA. For example, when one sees a new baby, the proper statement of appreciation is not, “Oh, so beautiful” or “She looks just like her mother.” One says, “She has pralung.” That is, “This is really a completely new being, unique in all creation.” Ratner uses the Khmer term to make just that point.
In her masterful and lyrical use of English – her second language - she writes of “drooping bracts of fruits and fronds” and describes one character “as light-footed as he is soft-spoken.” Those who know Phnom Penh will recognize Ratner’s description of the iconic - but doomed - White Building apartments as a “mass tomb that appears neither for the dead nor the living but for those disavowed by both.”
The plot is complex and compelling with appropriate misdirection and false clues – just like real life. The characters are fully articulated and believable and include several idealistic revolutionaries who are presented in a very sympathetic light as the revolution implodes around them and they see their lofty dreams of a new society twisted and mangled into the most horrific nightmares. The fact that this is a novel doesn’t mean it is fiction. Real people endured these most extraordinary circumstances. Some bloomed and blossomed, some just survived and continue to struggle for survival today. Millions of others fertilized the earth with their flesh and blood and bones.
For those who are not yet familiar with contemporary Cambodia, “Music of the Ghosts” is a wonderful introduction. Here you will learn something of its recent history, landscape, people, spirituality, customs, pain, sorrow and resilience. Readers who have had some exposure to Cambodia will be rewarded with a deep dive into some very complex characters, situations and insights and will be delighted to find many little pearls hidden along the way.
Finally, the book is a rewarding and memorable journey through fine writing by a bright and promising author … with her own pralung.
The theme of music runs throughout the book as if the pages were musical bars. There is no preface, but a prelude, no chapters, but movements. Music is synonymous with life. And the sounds and sights of Cambodia, even in its darker genocidal eras, ring in the reader’s ears like a symphony.
And then there’s the Old Musician, the man we meet clutching his instrument, his life, in the opening movement. The man who is presented to the reader as the key note in the score. Although in the end, he becomes the harmony, as new settings and scenes and characters began to melodize on the page. It’s not many books I know that transform tragedy to song as this one does.
Many philosophies embedded in the book have staying power too, the way you hear a tuning fork long after it’s struck. Take, for example, the monk, the Venerable’s beliefs about justice. “When i think of the unfathomable suffering, the countless lives lost and broken, I’m left with this profound hope that someday there will exist a world where justice is not simply the exchange of a life for a life, an ideal of retribution to right a wrong, but a path one walks and lives, a way of being.” It is paragraphs like this that make me long to return to the sorrow of Cambodian genocide rather than think of American criminal justice reform or some other issue of justice in the west.
The book stakes its claim quickly, asserting its purpose in the thoughts of the Old Musician. “Something fluid and irrepressible rushes from deep within him and pools behind his eyes. He tries pushing it back. He can’t allow himself the consolation of such emotion. Sorrow is the entitlement of the inculpable. He has no claim on it, no right to grief. After all, what has he lost? Nothing. Nothing he wasn’t willing to give up then. Still, he can’t help but feel it, whatever it may be, sorrow or repentance. It flows out of him, like the season’s accumulated rain, meandering through the gorges and gullies of his disfigured face, cutting deeper into the geography of his guilt.” This novel is a long and melodic exploration of what wells up behind our eyes. It is a translation of the unspeakable grief in being human. In this, it pinpoints something that only exists in novels.
Top reviews from other countries
As in her first book, Ratner writes strongly and vividly about the realities of life under the Khmer Rouge and is very effective in depicting a sense of the horror of what was done. What happened in Cambodia is hard to imagine - under the Khmer Rouge, around 25% of the population were killed in less than five years. It's shocking and horrible and stories like this, which focus on particular fictional lives - tiny parts of that vast jigsaw - are sometimes the most effective way of bringing home just what that meant. Teera is a likeable character, as are the supporting characters in the novel. The pace at which the backstory is revealed is carefully measured and keeps the reader guessing, keeping the story balanced with the ongoing 'present day' tale and the history between the musician and Teera's parents.
One interesting aspect of the novel is the way it shows how ordinary people initially supported the Khmer Rouge and believed they would improve and help their country. As with many human movements, the initial ideology was not inherently bad, but with power came abuse and well intentioned people who helped the regime into power then had to live with that. It also highlights how many of the soldiers were ordinary peasants - often no more than children - who were forced to participate. As such defining the victims and perpetrators of the conflict is not always easy.
Overall, this was a thoughtful and well paced novel which showed the horrors of war and tried to use a different angle to explore a conflict the author had written about previously. I'd love to read another by her which either looks at the country's more ancient past, or one that focusses on the modern Cambodia and its future. Having visited recently I was struck by how much it has to offer and I how people are trying to move on from their past of conflict to a brighter future. I hope Cambodia can become more well known for its fabulous ancient temples and rich Buddhist culture, than its troubled past. A talented writer like Vaddey Ratner will be a great asset to that process.