Book Review - Ghost Music by An Yu

An Yu’s 2020 debut, Braised Pork, featured a young woman struggling with feelings of alienation after her sterile marriage was abruptly curtailed by the death of her husband. In her latest novel, Ghost Music, the female protagonist, Song Yan, is similarly estranged from herself and others, and in an unsatisfactory relationship. Both characters wrestle with the psychological fallout of their unfulfilled creative ambitions and experience strange, dreamlike encounters. 

Yan teaches piano. Her parents had hoped she would follow her father and become a concert pianist, but she self-sabotaged her graduation exams: “I had no reason to be unsuccessful, as I had dedicated all my waking hours to refining one skill . . . But the more I practised, the clearer it became that there was going to become a point where I wouldn’t be able to improve any more. What would happen after that? I started asking myself.” 

Instead, Yan settles for marriage with Bowen, a glorified car salesman who does not want children. At the start of the novel, Yan and Bowen have moved to a larger flat in Beijing to accommodate his recently widowed mother, Ma. Yan endures a claustrophobic home life with a selfish husband — her desires swiftly subsumed by his — and critical mother-in-law. Yu is good at conveying repressed emotions: Yan’s artistic frustration, her resentment of the parents she disappointed and her marital impotence. 

The domestic impasse is disrupted with the delivery of an anonymous gift of mushrooms. Ma gleefully recognises that they are from her home region, Yunnan, and sets about showing Yan how to cook them. Yan is more interested in finding the sender who claims he is Bai Yu, her father’s favourite pianist, a prodigy who had disappeared 10 years previously. When Yan receives a letter from the pianist, inviting her to visit him in the hutongs of the Shichahai district, she recalls how his talent “had always aroused a crushing fear in me, as if the countless layers of perfection hid a bottomless hole, and in the hole there was something as heavy as the world”. 

While the cracks in Yan’s marriage widen with a series of disturbing revelations about Bowen’s past, the mysterious Bai Yu may hold the key to her musical reawakening. When they meet, he tells her he cannot play the piano any more. He wants her to help him “find the sound of being alive”. Yan’s lack of agency is mirrored by that of ghostly Bai Yu but she attempts to meet the challenge he sets her. 

Yu, who is Chinese-born, offers vivid descriptions of contemporary Beijing. She sensitively conveys Yan’s melancholy and disconnectedness. She writes in clear, unadorned prose and deftly threads the magic-realist elements through the main narrative. However, the competing plot strands involving Bowen and Bai Yu prove distracting and we can never fully empathise with Yan’s central predicaments — her desire for independence, to exist on her own terms, to play the piano without pressure. This dilutes our enjoyment of a haunting journey towards self-fulfilment.

Orignally published by The Financial Times