Ghost Music by An Yu

“Solitude is tolerable, even enjoyable at times. But when you realise that you’ve given your life to someone, yet you know nothing but his name? That kind of solitude is loneliness. That’s what kills you.”

Not having had the best experience with An Yu’s Braised Pork I was intrigued but wary of this second novel of hers. Similarly to Braised Pork, Ghost Music is a sparsely written surreal tale that manages to explore weird and existentialist avenues while also remaining tethered to the daily minutiae comprising the main character’s every-day life (preparing meals, eating, etc). The narrative is characterized by a murkiness that obfuscates our understanding of the events and experiences that are being recounted, the line between reality and dreams becomes increasingly blurry so we soon find ourselves struggling to differentiate between what is real and what is an illusion. I won’t lie and write that I understood what was going on in this book, because I did not. While reading Ghost Music my eyebrows were fixed in a perpetual perplexed frown. Yet, those elements and scenes that mystified and confused me were also the ones that intrigued me. Silences, ghosts (figurative and non), music, and pasts that haunt, are the motifs running throughout Ghost Music. The narrative’s juxtaposition between the bizarre and the mundane brought to mind David Lynch and the work of Hiroko Oyamada. The dreamy atmosphere, the off-beat, and sometimes absurd, character interactions, as well as the fantastical ‘ghost’ storyline, resulting in a unique reading experience that is guaranteed to confuse and confound you.

“Loss came in all shapes and forms, but it hadn’t occurred to me until now that you could lose the things you never had.”

Our narrator is Song Yan, once a promising concert pianist, and now a piano tutor to young kids. She and her workaholic husband live together in a flat in Beijing. Bowen is remote, distracted, and quick to shut down any conversations about the possibility of children.
Bowen’s widowed mother, who is from the province of Yunnan, later joins them. Soon after they begin receiving parcels of mushrooms native to Yunnan. Song Yan and her mother-in-law form a tentative bond by cooking these together. Tensions rise when Song Yan’s mother-in-law begins to blame her for her lack of children. Song Yan receives a letter that leads her to Bai Yu, a renowned pianist who disappeared years before, and here the story becomes even more fantastical. Song Yan also learns more about Bowen’s past, and this widens the rift between them.
Another bizarre addition to Song Yan’s life is a recurrent dream involving a ghostly mushroom that may be trying to reveal something vital to her.

“I’d always known that I was on my own, that I existed as a person separate from others, but to accept that fact—to walk a solitary path without fear—took a whole other kind of bravery.”

As I said before, I did not really understand a lot of what was happening (why it was happening, how it was happening, what it would lead to). Still, there was something about the dreamlike quality of Song Yan’s experiences that held my interest. I was both drawn to and weirded out by the bizarre elements and aspects of her story. While the narrative does tackle familiar themes such as grief, trauma, and memory, it does so in an unfamiliar, uncanny even, way. I was unsure of where Song Yan’s story would lead her, and that was part of the appeal to me. This uncertainty and not-knowing what was real or not, and the direction of her story. The tone retains this detachedness that makes it hard to come to know the characters, but again, this is what ultimately made them interesting to me. Bowen is a particularly frustrating character, especially in how cold he is towards Song Yan. Yet, I also felt a modicum of sympathy towards him, when we learn more about his past. Bowen’s mother loses importance after the mid-way mark, which is a pity as I thought that the friction between her and Song Yan had potential. Still, I liked how Yu explored Song Yan’s loneliness, her sadness, and her melancholy. I also appreciated the different types of silences depicted in her narrative and their effects (on a person’s wellbeing, on a relationship, on someone’s impression of another person).

The characters’ opaqueness and obliqueness really fit with the surreal themes and imagery that are underlining Song Yan’s narrative. I will definitely give this a re-read and hopefully, that will enable me to understand wtf was going on more. Nevertheless, I was still able to like Ghost Music, in particular the contemplative nature and dreamlike quality of Song Yan’s narration.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

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