Content warnings: mentions of death, mentions of drowning
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: something dreamlike, a little quirky and numbing
Ghost Music by An Yu observes the life of Song Yan, a woman living in Beijing who isn’t satisfied with the direction her life has gone in. Having given up on becoming a concert pianist after enduring years of demanding training, she now teaches young children how to play the piano. Her dissatisfaction is the culmination of passive-aggressive comments and behaviour towards her, stemming from cultural expectations. She is told that she isn’t fulfilling the duties of a wife – since she teaches other children instead of cooking for her husband and has failed to seduce him into wanting a child – and lacks emotional connection or support from her husband, Bowen. The tension within the household, combined with the delivery of mysterious parcels of mushrooms, leads her to follow a letter to a residence upon request. There she meets Bai Yu, a piano prodigy who disappeared from the spotlight years ago. Bai Yu has a request: that she plays a piano piece to prove that the feeling he once felt as a pianist can still be recreated. Song Yan fails the first time and, intrigued by the sudden reappearance of a celebrity from her concert piano days, has a reason to return to the old piano and try again until she gets it right.
The characters and plot line are promising. The author characterises Bowen as a man who sees no issue with spending all his time at work and makes zero effort to spend time with Song Yan. He deflects, grumbles and is cagey about his reluctance to have a child. Song Yan’s mother-in-law takes her frustrations about her son’s coldness out on his wife, which genuinely frustrated me as well as Song Yan. As for our main character . . . for someone encountering a phantom from her past, she has this very strange desire to prove herself capable of fulfilling Bai Yu’s request in spite of the abstract, vague criteria he sets out for her. Amidst all this, she periodically encounters a talking mushroom. Which, actually, isn’t as far-fetched as one might imagine. As readers, we’re somewhat accustomed to stranger dream sequences, and this is akin to an Alice in Wonderland-esque encounter with a peculiar guide.
Something I’d like to highlight is that An Yu writes about longing very well. The most charming points of the story were often times when characters spoke of their hometown or memories associated with cuisine. Though these were few and far between, and not always recounted in the most positive circumstances, the sense of displacement from every character in this story felt tangible. Displacement brings people together in strange ways – temporarily bridging rifts to cook nostalgic food or contacting someone who hurt you to tell them about the state of your home. It becomes a part of their identity, their being and their worldviews.
What I found regrettable was how nothing felt used to its full potential, and there was no satisfying character growth. No one apart from Song Yan seems to challenge Bowen in the whole story – not his colleagues nor his mother. There are a few explanations as to why he is so aloof and work-obsessed, but an emotionally unavailable character is hard to sympathise with when his confessions feel more self-gratifying than like calls for help. Without anyone in the household to hear Song Yan out, she projects her insecurities onto Bai Yu. He is melancholic, a man of few words and even less conversation. For most of the book, I was confused about whether Bai Yu was supposed to be a mentor figure later down the line or simply a plot device since there seemed to be no relationship developing (romantic, platonic, sympathetic or otherwise) between him and Song Yan. They simply co-exist, chasing after something they cannot not quite articulate.
I think this story didn’t stand up as well against other narratives exploring grief for me because it gave me closure without catharsis. It was, as promised, a dreamlike read, but one that fades rather unceremoniously into the distance rather than something that weighs on your conscience. Instead of hope for new beginnings, it gave us a natural progression from dealing with regrets to moving to the next stage of life. It left me wishing Song Yan the best for the future and wondering what became of the talking mushroom. I rate it 3.5 stars.