Bae Suah’s A Greater Music is an intoxicating mix of language, nature, and sound, made all the more complex by its translation into English from Korean. Translated by Deborah Smith, the novel reads somewhat like a dream. It follows an unnamed narrator’s journey through the trials and tribulations of love, life, and the inevitability of death. It is a deceptively simple story, involving the narrator, her (ex)-boyfriend, and another character, M, whose full name is never revealed.

Echoes of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body come to mind when reading Suah’s novel, with its exploration of what it means to love, to be in love, and all the nuances in between. There is the naiveté of love, and the difference between love and infatuation. There are understandings, or misunderstandings, facilitated and influenced by family and friends. Suah does not provide an immediate context for her characters, choosing instead to let them develop organically in our heads.

The novel’s fractured timeline is part of this. Disorienting at first, in hindsight it adds volumes. Memories, by their very nature, are fleeting, can be unreliable, and are often recalled in illogical order, yet still seem to make sense when pieced together. Our lives are shaped by the ways in which we make and recollect these memories, whether in a positive or negative light. The novel’s non-linear trajectory also allows it to tackle issues like death in a sensitive, insightful manner, bringing to light this important aspect of life that is too often ignored, or considered taboo.

There are many threads woven throughout the novel, with water being one of the strongest. From the narrator’s near-drowning, to the seemingly constant rain, water is almost ever-present. It serves as an apt metaphor for the ebb and flow of life, its stagnation, and its terrible unpredictability. Water is essential for life, but it can just as easily take it away; it can be temperamental, and even uncontrollable, but also a thing of exquisite beauty.

English is a foreign language in Suah’s narrative – a strange concept for those of us to whom English comes naturally. It is slightly uncanny to see phrases like “the English-language versions of the Harry Potter Series and American Psycho” – works which we know in the original. We are also guided through the narrator’s mind as she attempts to learn German, her ‘relatively’ poor grasp of the language simply emphasising the importance of translation in a world that is becoming increasingly Anglophonic.

Aside from English, Korean, and German, music is another language that looms large in the novel. Music is a way in which the narrator understands and seeks solace from those around her. Even though the amalgamation of literature and classical music may seem natural, it can be difficult to combine the two in a way that does not alienate those who are unfamiliar with the names and specific terminology. But Suah and Smith do just fine. Of course, those with some knowledge of classical music may glean extra meaning from these references, but their inclusion does not detract from enjoyment of the novel, or indeed, an understanding of its messages.

In A Greater Music, Suah and Smith have crafted a timeless piece of writing and, as is appropriate, there is no definite conclusion. Life goes on, after all. We meet people, and we lose them. It is what we do with them that is important, and how we remember those events in years to come.

Publication details

A Greater Music / Bae Suah / translated by Deborah Smith / Open Letter Books / 11 October 2016

About the reviewer

Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of mostly non-fiction, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing work by Asian Australian artists. She can be found on Twitter or at her website.