Ghost Musicby An Yu
From the author of the “original and electric” Braised Pork (Time), An Yu’s enchanting and contemplative novel of music and mushrooms follows a former concert pianist searching for the truth about a vanished musician
For three years, Song Yan has filled the emptiness of her Beijing apartment with the tentative notes of her young piano students. She gave up on her own career as a concert pianist many years ago, but her husband Bowen, an executive at a car company, has long rebuffed her pleas to have a child. He resists even when his mother arrives from the southwestern Chinese region of Yunnan and begins her own campaign for a grandchild. As tension in the household rises, it becomes harder for Song Yan to keep her usual placid demeanor, especially since she is troubled by dreams of a doorless room she can’t escape, populated only by a strange orange mushroom.
When a parcel of mushrooms native to her mother-in-law’s province is delivered seemingly by mistake, Song Yan sees an opportunity to bond with her, and as the packages continue to arrive every week, the women stir-fry and grill the mushrooms, adding them to soups and noodles. When a letter arrives in the mail from the sender of the mushrooms, Song Yan’s world begins to tilt further into the surreal. Summoned to an uncanny, seemingly ageless house hidden in a hutong that sits in the middle of the congested city, she finds Bai Yu, a once world-famous pianist who disappeared ten years ago.
A gorgeous and atmospheric novel of art and expression, grief and survival, memory and self-discovery, Ghost Music animates contemporary Beijing through the eyes of a lonely yet hopeful young woman and gives vivid color and texture to the promise of new beginnings.
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Pick
Named a Most Anticipated Book by TIME
“Spellbinding and atmospheric . . . With its quiet, dreamy bending of reality and its precise depiction of many different strains of alienation, Ghost Music is an evocative exploration of what it means to live fully—and the potential consequences of failing to do so. Yu braids the mundane and the magical together with a gentle hand . . . There’s something here of early Murakami’s graceful, open-ended approach to the uncanny, as well as the vivid yet muted emotionality of Patrick Modiano or Katie Kitamura. Like these skillful portraitists of alienation, Yu conjures a visceral inbetweenness where the worlds of matter and spirit meet in a shared, suspended space.”—Alexandra Kleeman, New York Times Book Review
“The story at the centre of Ghost Music revolves around the struggles of living with an elderly inlaw, the collapse of a marriage, and more generally the pressures on women to be doting wives in Chinese society. However, these themes are explored in such an unusual way that it doesn’t read like a domestic novel; throughout there is the uncanny sense of something odd, verging on supernatural, going on in the background . . . An intriguing book that knits together music and life to touch on something profound.”—Claire Kohda, Guardian
“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 . . . Ghost Music shows us how we might find the trigger that wakes us up, forces us to confront our demons, and helps us heal.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Juxtaposing unreal imagery and distinctive prose with very human characters, Ghost Music is a novel about learning to cope with lost dreams and missed opportunities.”—Foreword Reviews
“Talking mushrooms, classical music, and the complexities of identity infuse a semisurreal novel
that contrasts the immediacy of daily life in Beijing with a mesmerizing dreamscape . . . A mood of yearning and a search for emotional freedom drive this simply told yet enigmatic story that includes bursts of imaginative flare, often lit by an orange glow. Intimate, melancholic, unresolved—perhaps frustratingly so for some readers—yet hopeful, Yu’s story offers a restless female perspective working toward clarity. Dreamy and questioning, an unsettling novel composed of wistful notes.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Replete with dreamlike sequences, enclosed walls, and talking mushroom . . . Those who enjoyed Yu’s previous work or surrealistic fiction like Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole will likely welcome her latest offering.”—Library Journal
“Ethereal . . . Beautifully metaphoric and insightful . . . Yu’s lyrical language and atmospheric descriptions bring out the contrast between Song Yan’s oppressive, superficial reality and the hypnotic world where she converses with fungi. Fans of literary novels with a supernatural edge, such as Jamie Ford’s The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, take note.”—BookPage
“This novel of grief, survival, and artistic ambitions captures the uncanny despair of loneliness and the liberating effort of beginning a new life.”—Isle McElroy, Vulture
“A melancholic, mysterious exploration of a young Beijing pianist grappling with family secrets, a distant husband and the meaning of music and expression . . . [Song Yan] remains an intriguing hero in her restrained, calm acceptance of her lot.”—Observer (UK)
“Beautiful prose and claustrophobic imagery . . . intensely evokes its protagonist’s alienation.”—New Statesman (UK)
“Often stunning. [Yu’s] turns of phrase are simple yet wonderful . . . Mixes the real and the surreal, blurring dreamworlds and the everyday . . . Transporting, searching, and poetic, Yu’s weird, mutated storytelling wonderfully marries mundane and deep existential dilemmas.”—The List
“Yu mesmerizes with this surreal story of music and mushrooms . . . As Song Yan relentlessly surges toward independence and away from solitude and loneliness, Yu’s blistering narrative reaches a plaintive end. Readers will be enthralled.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An atmospheric study in disconnected relationships . . . In order to live, prodded by talking mushrooms, [an] elusive prodigy, and finally, the music, Song Yan will need to escape her stifling existence. Yu delivers another intimate, intricate performance.”—Booklist
“A frustrated piano teacher gains some much-needed clarity and perspective in An Yu’s novel Ghost Music . . . Juxtaposing unreal imagery and distinctive prose with very human characters, Ghost Music is a novel about learning to cope with lost dreams and missed opportunities.”—Foreword Reviews
“An Yu’s lush, delicate novel Ghost Music unfolds like Claude Debussy’s atmospheric piece for solo piano Rêverie, lulling the reader into protagonist Song Yan’s surrealistic daydream of a life. As the former pianist and young wife confronts the stark reality of her marriage with suppressed but deeply felt emotions, she begins to test the limits of her freedom and finds that like the mysterious mushrooms that appear in the mail and in her dreams, she, too, may thrive in darkness.”—Chris Cander, USA Today-bestselling author of The Weight of a Piano
“Enthralling and elegant, Ghost Music conjures a world I have never seen before: dreamlike, mysterious, suspenseful in the secrets it reveals, while always being grounded in the sensory. The narrator’s wise sensibility drew me in, but I stayed for the sentences—each one more astonishing than the next, they revealed an extraordinary depth of feeling. Like a Ryuichi Sakamoto composition, this novel casts a haunting spell.”—Sanaë Lemoine, author of The Margot Affair
“Dreamlike and diurnal, haunted and lucid, ambivalent and hopeful, An Yu’s Ghost Music pulses with profound mystery. A disquieting, mesmerizing novel.”—Sara Freeman, author of Tides
“To read Ghost Music’s spare prose is to discover its cogency. Yu allows our quiet manias to grow apace with her staggering imagination. An Yu’s second novel affirms her as one of our most important writers.”—Zain Khalid, author of Brother Alive
“Produces its own kind of mind trip . . . Written with a shimmering lightness that maintains, as Jia Jia thinks of her watery visions, ‘some balance between mystery and simplicity’ . . . An also tucks a touching love story into the strange proceedings, which supplies enough incentive to keep Jia Jia—and the reader—equally invested in boring old reality.”—Wall Street Journal
“An original and electric narrative . . . Yu’s language is sparse yet surreal . . . In Braised Pork, Yu raises provocative questions about why we get fixated on those moments—and how they might relate to the company we crave.”—TIME, “New Books You Should Read”
“Braised Pork’s central journey is interior: the incremental and circuitous process of a human mind trying to come to terms with itself . . . A haunting, coolly written novel . . . Intensely atmospheric.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Yu’s prose is crisp and never tedious, with bursts of startling imagery amid the otherwise restrained style.”—New York Times Book Review
“A startlingly original debut . . . While it’s easy to see that Braised Pork borrows something of Haruki Murakami’s brand of strange melancholia, there’s a startlingly original imagination of its own at work here . . . A sensitive portrait of alienated young womanhood.”—Guardian
“Dreamy and surreal . . . What follows is her journey of rediscovery—of her passion, of her spirituality, of her artistic abilities, and of herself—that evolves in her real life and in dreams. It’s otherworldly and deeply moving.”—BuzzFeed
“In searching for answers to her husband’s untimely death, a young widow in Beijing finds room to explore her own existential angst . . . Yu’s original debut spins an increasingly surreal tale which brilliantly mirrors Jia Jia’s own discombobulation . . . Proof positive that rebirths are entirely possible—even in one lifetime.”—Kirkus Reviews
“An’s poignant debut tells the story of a young woman trying to find purpose in her life in the wake of disorienting personal tragedy . . . An draws Jia Jia with great affection and sympathy as the character grapples with the elusive meaning of her dreams and powerful emotional experiences. Readers will be moved by An’s mature meditation on the often inexplicable forces that shape the trajectory of an individual life.”—Publishers Weekly
“Poignant . . . A moving, magical parable about a young woman’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment . . . Enchanting.”—Shelf Awareness
“The premise itself is intriguing enough, but the real magic is in watching Jia Jia stretch her limbs as she leaves behind a rather restrictive marriage and encounters places and people she never imagined. Come for the mystery, stay for self-discovery of a liberated woman.”—Literary Hub
“Bold yet understated, Braised Pork is the debut of a supremely confident and gifted writer.”—Katie Kitamura, author of A Separation
“This exquisite novel is many things: a detective story in which the real object of pursuit is how one makes meaning of a sometimes ineffable existence; a meditation on the talismanic power of art and the indefatigability of the human spirit; and a many-faceted, perfectly cut gem of psychological portraiture set in well-wrought sentences burnished to a gorgeous luster. The emotions in this book keep pace with you, shadowing you with a quiet intensity, until in the last stretch they overtake you completely.”—Matthew Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves
“Yu is a fantastic storyteller. The prose is sly and controlled, yet page after page, I found myself spellbound by a story that does what all writers hope to do, which is to make the familiar unfamiliar.”—Weike Wang, author of Chemistry
“What a singular, slippery, transfixing novel this is. An Yu achieves a hypnotizing emotional clarity as she takes her narrator ever further from a stifling life in Beijing into a watery realm unlike any I’ve read before.”—Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew
“Braised Pork is mesmerizing, incisive, and utterly disarming. An Yu writes beautifully about loneliness, the experience of isolation—from others, from one’s own past—and the possibility of human connection, however fragile.”—Rosie Price, author of What Red Was
“What a voice An Yu unfurls in Braised Pork. So elegant and poised, so tuned to the great mysteries of love and loss. Like a breeze on a still day, hers is a sound I didn’t know I needed until I felt it. Braised Pork is a major debut.”—John Freeman
Excerpted from Ghost Music © 2023 by An Yu. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
When I woke, the room was so black that I had to blink a few times to make sure my eyelids were really open. I stared through the deep black at what I believed to be the ceiling, taking extended breaths, waiting for my vision to adjust. Minutes passed, and still I was unable to make out any of the objects in the room. I must gradually have fallen asleep again, until I was woken a second time by a weak, squeaking voice.
‘Excuse me, is anybody there? I would very much appreciate some help. ’
I sat up and directed my attention to where the voice was coming from and saw a soft orange light near the floor. I quickly got out of bed, made my way over to it and squatted down to take a better look. A small mushroom – about the length of a hairpin – had sprouted from the boards. It had a thin stem, which supported its large, flat and slightly wrinkled cap. The top half of it was glowing, but the light hadn’t made any of its surroundings visible. I prodded its cap with my index finger.
‘I would rather not be touched,’ the mushroom said.
I was certain that this was a dream. I brought my hand up to my nose and noticed a faint, musky smell at the tip of my finger.
‘Can you please help me?’ it said again.
‘What do you need?’ I asked.
‘Well, you see, I’d like to be remembered.’
I looked around. Everything besides the mushroom was buried in darkness. This was unusual, as my mother-in-law always kept a light on in the living room for when she had to use the bathroom at night. I wasn’t in our apartment; that was for sure. Wherever I was, it must
have been an old place. There were smells of smoke and cooking oil that had been absorbed into the walls.
‘It is normal that you don’t understand,’ the mushroom said, upon seeing how puzzled I was. Even though I would be mad to imagine it had eyes, I sensed it staring at me.
‘But when you leave this room,’ it said, ‘I’d like you to remember me.’
All I could think of was finding a way to wake up. The air had already been moist, but the humidity had built even more in the past few minutes. I pinched myself on the forearm.
‘I’m afraid that won’t work,’ the mushroom said. ‘You’re not in a dream. Not exactly.’
‘If this isn’t a dream,’ I said, ‘then how is it possible that I’m here, in this dark room, talking to a mushroom?’
‘I am not a mushroom. Not in the way you think I am. And I cannot perceive light and darkness, unfortunately.’
‘But you can perceive dream and reality?’
‘You could say that. But oftentimes those two things are not so different.’
I stood up. Dream or reality, I had to leave the room.
‘How do I get out of here?’ I asked.
‘I suggest you go back to bed, climb beneath the covers, make yourself comfortable and go to sleep. There is no other door out of this room.’
I wasn’t convinced, and decided to prove the mushroom wrong. I placed my hands on the wall in front of me. It was a corner. I started moving to my left. The bricks were exposed; I could feel the mortar joints. After seven steps, I reached another corner, so I turned and continued. Seven more steps until the next corner. The whole time, I kept my eye fixed on the orange light
so that I wouldn’t lose my sense of direction. The third wall measured the same length, and examining the fourth, I discovered that I was in a square- shaped room, without a single door.
I had no choice but to trust the mushroom. The bed must be in the centre of the room, I reasoned, so I fumbled around for it in the dark, careful not to run my leg into its corners. I found it easily, and did as I was told.
To my surprise, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. The orange mushroom said nothing more. When I woke again, I was alone on my bed, the morning sky was a washed-out blue and in the corner of the room sat nothing but my dragon tree in its pot. To make sure, I dragged the pot to the side and checked the floors. No mushroom in sight. Relieved, I looked at
the clock. It was a little before seven in the morning. I decided not to linger in bed and started my usual routine: I brewed a pot of oolong tea, put on the first movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B- flat major and took out the sheet music to follow along.
It was not until later, after the sonata had ended and I was stepping into the shower, that I noticed the musky smell on my finger.