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 in-betweenness where the worlds of matter and spirit meet in a shared, suspended space ... Ghost Music inverts the tropes of the ghost story, which often feature spirits acting out in the violent, passionate way of the living...instead drawing the familiar world of human life closer to the enigmatic realm of the dead.
The story at the centre of Ghost Music revolves around the struggles of living with an elderly in-law, 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 ... The reader is left wondering what is real, and what is dream or hallucination ... A lot is unexplained in Ghost Music, and at times it’s not clear where the novel is going. However, among Yu’s many illuminating descriptions of music, one hints at a central idea ... This is an intriguing book that knits together music and life to touch on something profound.
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.