“Inside, there were hundreds of bright orange mushrooms glowing in the dark… Together, they looked like a swarm of jellyfish floating through the night.”
For me, when it comes to books, spooky season stretches from the end of September until early February. Give me thrillers; give me twisted worlds. Whilst I only tend to dip my toe in true horror at Halloween, I’m here for the more subtle, creepy reads all through the autumn and winter months.
Braised Pork by An Yu is one such book. I bought it on a whim in the winter of 2019; it was one of those wonderful bookshop moments where I stumbled across a title I’d never heard of before and – taken in by its cover and a bookseller’s praise – I purchased it and marched it home.
Braised Pork is a story about a woman whose husband mysteriously dies. Set in Beijing, it’s a humid novel; you feel like you’re walking underwater whilst reading it, everything vaguely distorted with characters that feel like they are melting. It has hints of Jane Eyre, and it reminded me of author Yoko Ogawa at her best. Since then, I’ve been eagerly awaiting An Yu’s second novel, which was released earlier this month, and I’m so thrilled to say that I love it even more than her debut.
“Not knowing what to do with my body, I sat down and played a B-flat minor chord. If I had a favourite chord, this would be it. My mother always used to ask me, ‘Can you play that chord? The one I like. The one that sounds like it’s been snowing all winter.’”
Ghost Music is a blooming mushroom – a tale emerging from darkness. We follow Song Yan, a piano teacher who relinquished her career as a concert pianist when she married her husband. Now, teaching music to other people’s children, and wanting a child of her own, everything feels a little out of tune. This unease only increases when her mother-in-law comes to stay, and Song Yan begins to learn things about her husband’s past – things she had never thought possible. When mysterious boxes of mushrooms start arriving at their flat, Song Yan learns how to cook them, eat them, and absorb them into her being. At its heart, this is a story about what your life can grow into when just one unexpected thing lands on your doorstep. Can you eat all the secrets before they eat you? Can you swallow down all the ghosts before they multiply?
“When I got home, [my husband] was already there, smoking, his legs up on the table. My mother-in-law was busy with her embroidery. Looking at the two of them, I felt unnecessary, as if I had been inserted into a painting that would’ve been better without me.”
Song Yan dreams about fungi taking over her house, first as an unwanted guest and then as a glow-in-the-dark light show – orange caps as friendly lights keeping her company throughout the night. She trawls through her past to source music that makes her happy; music that she can play and really perform, so that she can enjoy her life rather than simply exist within it. This is a novel that plays around with the idea of hauntings: what you should let yourself be haunted by, and what you should bury somewhere far, far away. It’s the perfect book to curl up with at this time of year. A little bit of a ghost story, a little bit of a family drama, a little bit of eerie surrealism. It has an undeniable warmth to it, too. It’s a night light of a book.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.