Ghost Music: A Novel
- By An Yu
- Grove Press
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Angela María Spring
- January 26, 2023
An otherworldly tale of a woman’s loss, longing, and search for herself.
An Yu’s Ghost Music is a novel haunted in every way — psychologically, philosophically, and literally. This intricate, eerie book leaves the reader with more questions than answers, the kind of uncanny questions that reverberate in your mind with a tinny echo of reality.
Sprouting beneath the plot are Ghost Music’s mushrooms; edible mushrooms and spectral mushrooms that possess a possibly human consciousness. It’s an enchanting, harrowing world that Yu has crafted, one in which these beloved — yet unknowable — fungi represent the ethereal magic we both yearn for and already have within our grasp.
At the center of the story is Song Yan, a young woman who, in an act of passive rebellion, gives up a burgeoning career as a concert pianist to instead settle as a piano teacher and marry an emotionally unavailable workaholic. The novel opens with what Song Yan believes to be a dream, possibly a portent, in which she’s trapped in a doorless room with a small orange mushroom that tells her it would like to be remembered.
Song Yan’s husband, Bowen, has moved them to a larger apartment in Beijing to accommodate his newly widowed mother; soon, mysterious boxes of mushrooms — with no known sender — begin to arrive.
Song Yan’s relationship with her mother-in-law is strained, as is her relationship with Bowen. She wants a child, and he rebuffs her pleas. (She learns from her mother-in-law that Bowen has a sister who was sent away as a child due to the family’s poverty.) It is only through cooking the mushrooms that Song Yan and the older woman interact comfortably. Bowen’s perfunctory consumption of the fungi is a metaphor for the idea of being there in body but not spirit.
Later, when the mushrooms stop coming, Song Yan receives a letter from someone claiming to be long-disappeared piano virtuoso Bai Yu, whom Song Yan once saw in concert with her musician father. She decides to visit this alleged Bai Yu and finds him isolated in a barely furnished apartment. He asks her to play a particular song on his piano and tells her, “I want you to help me find the sound of being alive.”
When she fails to do so to his satisfaction, Song Yan leaves, determined to locate the desired sound and come back. But while listening in the car to a CD of her younger self playing a song written by her father, she falls into the same black hole that drove Bai Yu into self-imposed exile:
“Somewhere towards the second half of the piece, I realized I had forgotten I was the one playing. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t picture myself pressing those keys and producing those sounds. The music came to me as undeniably as the feeling of still air touching skin, as if no one was playing it and it had just always been there. A feeling of horror surged into my head and my vision went blank. I clasped the wheel and tried to recall whether the highway was straight.”
When Song Yan discovers Bowen has an ex-wife and child — the latter of whom drowned after a strange orange dust appeared in Bowen’s hometown — she begins to unravel. Unable to sleep, she leaves her husband to wander the city, transformed into a living specter who visits her personal ghost, Bai Yu, until even he disappears, and all she’s left with is his empty, doorless apartment and the reproducing orange mushroom (which may or may not be the pianist himself). It is through her strange and terrifying experience with the mushroom that Song Yan finally starts to knit her cleaved psyche and self back together.
Ghost Music asks us questions key to our own circumstances today. How have we allowed our emotional landscapes to separate from our bodies? As a society, why do we let ourselves, in this age of covid-19 and obscene healthcare disparities, live this way: sick, and only getting sicker? If Ling Ma’s Severance gave us a chilling pre-pandemic glimpse of how our capitalistic system could foster a virus that turns humans into automatons doomed to a living death, then Ghost Music shows us how we might find the trigger that wakes us up, forces us to confront our demons, and helps us heal.
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.