Music of the Ghosts
is a 2017 novel by Cambodian-American author Vaddey Ratner. Loosely based on Ratner’s own family history, the novel follows Cambodian-born American Suteera (who goes by “Teera”) as she returns to the land of her birth to confront the horrific legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. The novel is arranged like a piece of music, into four sections: a “Prelude” followed by First, Second and Third Movements. Within the novel, the reader is introduced to the Cambodian musical genre of smot
, “poetry sung in honor of loved ones, living or dead”: Music of the Ghosts
is Ratner’s smot
for those who suffered as the victims and as the perpetrators of Khmer-era crimes. Critics described the novel as “lush with tropical heat and heated emotions…no easy read but impossible to put down” (Kirkus Reviews
The novel’s “Prelude” introduces Suteera as a child, hiding overnight in a rice paddy with her Aunt Amara. She remembers her brother, mother, and father—all dead—and tries to sleep. Tomorrow, she and Amara will try to get across the border to Thailand.
The “First Movement” opens with an elderly musician reflecting on a letter he has written to the daughter of a man he used to know. The point of view shifts to Suteera—now an adult who goes by “Teera”—who is on a plane from the United States to Cambodia. She is carrying the ashes of her Aunt Amara. On the plane are several other refugees, like Teera returning to Cambodia for the first time. She reflects on what Cambodia means to her—how strange it is that it still feels like “home” to her. Nevertheless, as soon as the plane lands, Teera finds herself struggling to come to terms with the poverty she witnesses on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Meanwhile, the as-yet-unnamed musician is at the Wat Nagara Buddhist temple, remembering his time in America. The abbot asks him to play his lute in a healing ceremony for a boy afflicted by drug addiction. Teera arrives at the temple, where she glimpses the musician before encountering her father’s name on a memorial, which causes her to flee. Back at her hotel, Teera remembers her father. For her eighth birthday, he had written her a smot
. Shortly afterward, he disappeared and was never seen again.
The healing ceremony begins. While the musician plays, his friend Dr. Narunn—a medical doctor and former monk—chants a prayer of healing. The musician—whose name, we learn, is Tun—remembers his education. One of his teachers was the future dictator, Pol Pot.
The First Movement ends with a poem entitled “Interlude,” apparently written by Teera.
The Second Movement begins as Teera returns to Wat Nagara. This time, she meets Tun, and they talk about her father. She says that she hopes the truth about his disappearance didn’t die with him. Tun remembers meeting Teera as a three-year-old, with her father. Shortly afterward, Tun adopted a daughter of his own, Sita. He left Sita behind to fight in the war. He had an idealistic dream of building a better, fairer Cambodia.
Teera drives Dr. Narunn home. She explains to him that she no longer knows whether home is Cambodia or America, and he tells her about his past. His mother died in childbirth, which later made him want to study medicine. They go to bed together and begin a relationship.
At the temple, two monks find a gun in the river. Tun passes it along to the abbot. The abbot mentions that a little orphan girl Lah has been left at the monastery.
While Suteera and Dr. Narunn explore Phnom Penh, Tun remembers the war. For his first month as a soldier, he was kept in solitary confinement. Later, he returned to Phnom Penh to rescue his daughter and her nanny, only to find that the nanny had been killed. He wonders how he will be able to tell Suteera his secret: “I am your father’s executioner.”
The abbot calls Dr. Narunn to ask if he and Suteera will look after Lah for a few days. They agree. The Third Movement begins as Teera and Dr. Narunn take Lah to an animal sanctuary and then to Siem Reap. They begin to feel like a family unit.
Meanwhile, Tun remembers his confinement in the prison camp at Slak Daek. There he encountered Teera’s father, Sokhon. Tun had fingered Sokhon to the authorities, back when he had believed in the regime. Sokhon was being subjected to horrific torture, and Tun was desperate with guilt. Sokhon asked Tun to put him out of his misery if he was dying painfully, and Tun agreed.
Teera returns to the temple, and Tun summons the courage to tell her the truth about her father’s death: Both Tun and Sokhon underwent fresh rounds of torture. One of the torturers took pity on Tun and slipped him a knife, so he could kill himself. Instead, recognizing that Sokhon was beyond help, he used the knife to kill Teera’s father.
Shortly after this, Tun recalls, the prison was liberated. Tun found Sokhon’s instruments and began the long battle to forgive himself.
Teera discusses forgiveness with Tun. She announces that she has decided to stay in Cambodia with Dr. Narunn and Lah. She donates Sokhon’s instruments to an orchestra of landmine victims. In the novel’s final moments, Tun sings Teera the smot
he has written for Teera’s father.