Book Review: Music of the Ghosts, Vaddey Ratner

Book Review: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

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Fiction: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

 

Vaddey Ratner calls her second novel, Music of the Ghosts, “a story of survivors.” It is a deep, thoughtful, heartfelt story of two people whose journey to escape the killing fields of Cambodia is still fraught with danger and tragedy, even decades after the regime was overthrown.

 

Teera is a young woman who escaped Cambodia as a child with her aunt. They were the only two of a large extended family to survive. Teera’s aunt raised her and guided her through high school in Minnesota, college at Cornell, and then back again to Minnesota. Many years later, though, her aunt contracted cancer and died soon after the diagnosis. Among her dying wishes was for part of her ashes to be returned to Cambodia, to the temple in Phnom Penh she had helped raise money to rebuild. The building was dedicated to the memory of Teera’s father, a musician in pre-war Cambodia. More than a little lost after the death of this central person in her world, Teera returns to Cambodia to honor her aunt’s wishes…and to meet an old musician who has sent her a mysterious letter.

 

Tun remained in Cambodia after the war. He lost everyone and everything. One of the few who survived his imprisonment, he had been held with Teera’s father near the end of the war. Tun had also been a musician, and the two men were familiar with each other before the war. While they were imprisoned together, Teera’s father entrusted Tun with the location of three musical instruments he had made by hand. Although they were not of any particular value, they were literally the only things he had left, and he asked Tun to find his daughter and give them to her. Tun had returned to Phnom Penh many years after the war looking for any signs of his friend’s family–and found the temple. There, the broken and crippled man was given a home and the opportunity to play his music. Eventually, he managed to write Teera, telling her of the instruments and of his friendship with her father.

 

Shifting back and forth between these two characters, author Vaddey Ratner brings us into a Cambodia that still struggles with its past. Everyone who survived the Khmer Rouge period was a victim–but many of the victims were also victimizers. Tun started the war as a soldier for the Khmer Rouge. During one of the purges, though, his loyalty was questioned. His daughter was raped and murdered, and he was thrown into prison. Under torture he gave up names of people he knew. Some of those people were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Whether this was because he gave up their names or not is unknowable–the “Organization” was arresting and killing people under any pretext, so it’s quite possible the names he gave were given up by other people as well, or that they would have been captured for other reasons. But the guilt he feels is real.

 

This is a reality for the actual Cambodia as well. What do you do with people who fought in the war? Most of the soldiers who fought against the Khmer Rouge were killed. But many of those who fought for the Khmer Rouge were killed or imprisoned and tortured by the regime itself. Should those people be held accountable for bringing Pol Pot to power? Or was their own experience at his hands enough punishment? Tun is physically and mentally shattered after the war. His family is dead, his body is broken, and his mind is haunted by his crimes. Yet he feels that he should be held more accountable. Ratner ultimately leaves that to the reader to judge.

 

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Book Review: Music of the GhostsVaddey Ratner

 

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Book Review: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

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Historical Fiction: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautiful, haunting, exquisite story that will live in my heart for a long, long time. “War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.” Gripping the reader from that first sentence, Vaddey Ratner takes us back to 1970s Cambodia. Told from the perspective of seven-year old Raami, we follow her family from their home in Phnom Penh to exile in the countryside and then from exile to forced labor. It is a story of survival more than triumph, and not everyone in her family survives.

 

The Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of thousands of their own people. Some estimates are over two million deaths during their four-year rule. Many were executed for supporting the former regime. Many more were worked to death or died of starvation in forced labor camps. Others became sick and died from inadequate or non-existent medical care. Raami is witness to every form of death and atrocity visited by the “Organization,” the term the regime used to describe itself. She herself is forced to labor, prohibited from going to school, taught to forget her past and serve the revolution. Although she holds onto the memories of her childhood including the poems and stories of her father, her spirit and her body are brutalized by misuse.

 

Yet, Raami is resilient. In the face of death, abuse, loss, illness, forced labor, and every other imaginable horror visited on her and her family, she continues. Despite there being no reason to hope, Raami lives. Despite every reason to lose her ability to love, Raami loves. As much as it is the story of one little girl, In the Shadow of the Banyan is the story of the Cambodian people. Brutalized and forsaken, both she and they survived.

 

There was a time, not too many years ago, when America was a place of hope for refugees and other victims of brutal regimes. Author Vaddey Ratner was a little girl in the “killing fields” of Cambodia. She, like her character, survived those days and came to America. Ratner arrived as a refugee in 1981 not knowing English. In 1990, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and went to Cornell, where she graduated summa cum laude. In these days when this country seems to have strayed from that vision of being a country of immigrants, perhaps this book can remind us why an America that stands for freedom for the oppressed and hope for the persecuted is so important.

 

Ratner may have arrived not knowing English, but she has become a master of the language. Her prose is achingly beautiful. She spends paragraphs describing rain, then compares that rain to the sorrow expressed by her mother. One character tells the story behind his shaved head and his scars, describing in detail how he obtained those scars to save his family–and how it ultimately did not matter. Ratner weaves Cambodian folk tales into the story through poetic retellings by Raami’s father and through more traditional stories told by peasants and servants Raami meets. These details bring light to the darkness of the story.

 

In the Shadow of the Banyan may be told from a child’s perspective, but it is not a children’s book. It is a book about the loss of childhood, the loss of an entire generation’s childhood, the loss of an entire nation’s innocence. It is also a book about resilience and hope. Ratner reminds us that the most desperate people can embody grace and empathy. Hopefully, she reminds us that the most blessed people can do the same.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the BanyanVaddey Ratner