Review: Ghost Music - An Yu
Genre: literary fiction Published: Harvill Secker (EU) & Grove Press (USA), November 2022
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“Loss came in all shapes and forms, but it never occurred to me until now that you could lose the things you never had.”
At this point, I feel like my entire list of favourite reads of 2022 is going to be made up of marmite books that people will either love or hate, but I will be confidently championing this one as a book that I loved to my core. Top 5 reads of 2022, and a book I see myself revisiting in the future many times.
Ghost Music is a resonant and reflective character piece with some admittedly bizarre element of magical realism mixed in. Our protagonist Song Yan is a young woman in the midst of a quiet identity crisis. She has given up her lifetime dream of becoming a concert pianist, in favour of becoming a housewife to her new husband, and only touches the piano to tutor a handful of children on the side. As her husband travels for work, the silence of their empty apartment is filled only with the tentative notes of her pupils, and the recent addition of her argumentative mother-in-laws critiques on her life. Tensions rise in the household until their holding-pattern is broken by a mysterious delivery of mushrooms from an unknown sender. These mushrooms form a conversation starter between the two women, as well as a starting point for a quest for the mysterious gifter, that will set Song Yan on the trail of a world-famous pianist who disappeared a decade ago.
Ghost Music brilliantly tells a story of young Chinese woman desperately trying to fit into the mould she feels set out for her, yet experiencing the dissonance and friction of that mould mismatching with her own dreams. It’s a novel that is, at its core, about grief. Not just the traditional kind over the loss of a loved one, but the kind of grief you can feel over the loss of your own identity and the future you envisioned. Each of the central characters (Song Yan, her mother in law, her husband and even Bai Yu) carries with them their own regrets of a previous life and roads not taken. Song Yan’s journey throughout these pages is a powerful search for identity and meaning in her plan-B, whilst shedding the haunting of a life she could’ve lived.
An Yu manages to pack so much layering into such a short novel and her writing has matured so much since her already brilliant debut Braised Pork. Her prose flows like music and weaves together the intricate chords of these different motifs and themes to create a beautifully melancholic symphony.
Even readers who don’t typically enjoy magical realism need not be intimidated by the “magical element” of the fungi in this novel. They are never plot point in themselves, but rather function as a catalyst. They connect and spark conversations about the past between Song Yan and her mother-in-law as the two of them make them into soup. They sprout from dark and forgotten places as a reminder of a past in decay. They appear in Song Yan’s dreams to blur the line between reality and the life she imagined. They are what I wish a good magical realist element to be: an accentuation of reality rather than a magical trope in their own right.
Overall, I deeply loved Ghost Music and was left with its deep and melancholic sounds resonating in my mind until now. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, even though I can see why some readers found it to be too “experimental/weird”.
Many thanks to Grove Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. You can find this book here on Goodreads.