My apologies for a rather lengthy absence. After having Covid, the energy and focus was lacking. The good news is that yours truly is back on track and excited to share all my bookish thoughts. I read Ghost Music by An Yu all the way back in March. Fortunately, this novel had such a strong impact on me that it truly feels as though I just finished it. My favorite works of fiction are the ones that linger in my brain. Sometimes, it’s the character, other times the writing, and quite often it’s because the subject matter makes me want to learn more about that particular culture. Ghost Music is a delicious and beautiful novel that contained all of these elements. This is a work that reminded me of The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro for its use of classical piano music, but it also brought to mind some of the best works of Haruki Murakami for the author’s use of surrealism. The combination of mushrooms and music lie at the heart of the story, and while this is a work that seems complex, it’s actually a simple story about families and the ones we lose.
In the opening pages of Ghost Music, we are introduced to Song Yan, a wife to her disconnected husband and has just welcomed her elderly mother-in-law into their home. Song Yan wakes in the night and finds herself in a strange room, startled by an orange mushroom growing out of the floorboards. The mushroom communicates with her, and while she doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, she’s told:
“But when you leave this room, it said, I’d like you to remember me.”
From the realms of what appears to be a dream, Song Yan wakes into the real world of Beijing and the apartment she lives in with her husband Bowen and his mother who has just moved in with them after her husband’s death. Song Yan struggles to navigate in the space between Bowen, a workaholic who appears disconnected emotionally, and her mother-in-law, who resents living with her son and his wife. Song Yan is frustrated because she feels the time is right to grow their family, while her husband is closed-off to the idea. Strange events begin to happen, such as an orange dust that begins to settle over Bowen’s childhood home, as well as a secret about him revealed by his mother.
Another mystery soon follows. When the first of many deliveries of mushrooms arrives at the apartment, Bowen’s mother recognizes them as jizong mushrooms, grown in the Yunnan province where their family lived, and a tenuous bond forms between the women as they shop for and prepare meals for Bowen that will highlight the mushrooms they receive.
Song Yan recognizes the name of the sender of the mushrooms, Bai Yu. Could this be Bai Yu, the piano prodigy her father wanted her to emulate before she gave up performing and switched to teaching piano? This same Bai Yu mysteriously disappeared without a trace years before. Song Yan begins to reflect on taking a life path of housewife over becoming a famous pianist herself.
When the mushroom deliveries cease, so too, it seems, does the relationship between the two women in the home. Soon, a letter from Bai Yu asking Song Yan to visit him sparks another kind of connection, between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the world of who we present as and who we truly are. Song Yan travels down a new path, one of discovering the person she is truly meant to be.
I can’t specify enough the beauty of this novel, as it shifts between the mundane world and the fantastic. Often, these two worlds overlap, throwing the reader slightly off balance. An Yu manages to give the world a gorgeous novel full of lyricism and love. Ghost Music challenges us to dig deeply into the ways we can’t escape our past, and how often we are haunted and shaped by the choices we make. While we may attempt to forget our past, too often a specter or two remains. Ghost Music is a wonderful view into some of the culture of Beijing, a novel that hits just the right note.