Ghost Music by An Yu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really had no idea what to expect when I started this book as I knew nothing about it or its author, and only had a passing recommendation from someone I only recently met. But it was unputdownable.
It is a first person narrative by a young married childless woman piano teacher, Song Yan, living in Beijing. Her mother in law comes to live with them. She had trained as a concert pianist but had chosen married life. But that is not going well and she realises she doesn't really know her husband at all when she discovers first that he had a sister. Other revelations follow. The strains of her marriage and the strains of living with one's mother in law take their toll. She receives a series of mysterious and unexpected deliveries of Yunaan mushrooms, her husband and mother in law's province. Although addressed to someone else, these cannot be returned as there is no return address. Her mother in law and her set about cooking the mushrooms that continue to arrive each week. Then she receives a letter from Bai Yu, her father's favourite concert pianist who walked away from his career and disappeared years ago. That letter ignites her and she goes to its address, one of the old courtyard hutongs in the back alleys of old Beijing.
These are the events around which this beautifully written and told story is crafted. How that is done is nothing short of extraordinary. With all the hallucinogenic effect of mushrooms they percolate into her dreams, she sees then in cupboards, growing from floorboards, in her walls and there is news that her husband's home town is covered in an orange dust. The effect is magical, making this anything but a domestic drama novel. But this is NOT magical realism. For me it is far more reminiscent of the best ghost stories ( The Turn of the Screw, The Others https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0230600/, The Orphanage https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0464141) but with shades of Nostalgia https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086022 as if they had been blended by Tarkovsky in his own special way he had with colour, music and movement.
Throughout the book music plays a central role - her relations with it, with the piano, with the children she teaches, and at perhaps the most intimate of ways the untouching shadow-playing with Bai Yu. I'm no musician but I am sure someone will write about the choice of the pieces that are in this book. Debussey's Reverie is the main one and I did look it up - "Reverie is not full of excitement and explosions of colour...but..is calm, peaceful and priorities atmosphere and reaching a dream like state. Often used for mindfulness and meditation" quote from https://classicalexburns.com/2022/08/... . That choice can be no accident. It totally fits.
This book HAS to be made into a movie and scored appropriately. But making a movie of this will take a deft hand, as so much is in what is not said, in the gaps between the notes, those moments which are 'more resonant than the mere absence of sound' . And it is here that this novel indicates to me a great writing talent. It handles these equivalent to off camera moments well, it handles silences well, by using the ghostly hallucinations to explore the understanding, coming to terms with and resolution of the ordinary everyday strains and constraints of life and marriage.
Audio version is beautifully narrated by Vera Chok who has also narrated An Yu's only other novel Braised Pork
I really urge you to read this book.