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Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

“And she thinks of a Cantonese saying: Trees want to be still, but the wind won’t stop blowing. When children want to care for their parents, it’s already too late.”

Pik-Shuen Fung’s compelling and mesmerizing debut novel Ghost Forest begins with the narrator saying ‘Hi Dad’ to a bird, twenty-one days after her father has died. The story follows this young woman’s grief journey—vacillating between different time periods, excavating memories, bringing on key witnesses.



The narrator and her family lived in Hong Kong until just before the 1997 Handover, when Britain transferred sovereignty of the region to China. Her family moves to Vancouver, Canada when she is not yet school age, but her father stays in Hong Kong to continue to work. They are an ‘astronaut family,’ as the term came to be known, with the astronaut father flying between countries.


This history, and theme of separation, acts as a backdrop and touchpoint to much of the narrator’s life. The novel spans decades and occasionally switches narration to her mother or grandmother—invoking the generational ties that reach back in the past to inform the future, her present. Fung explores the familial memories of emotional remove, another type of disconnection, though the Handover is the catalyst for the constant feeling of separation the narrator has from her father. The space between them physically and emotionally haunts her personal memories and is evoked in the blank spaces of the novel itself.


“They left large areas of the paper blank because they felt empty space was as important as form, that absence was as important as presence.”

Vignette storytelling can be hit or miss for me; when used most effectively it’s due to prose (and even lyricism) that gives a path to deeper meaning and feeling, which is precisely what Ghost Forest achieves. Indeed the epigraph to Ghost Forest is from one of the form’s best examples, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Sometimes the empty spaces in vignette novels can feel cold and at a remove, like whiplash wherein the reader is searching for the thread (earlier this year I read Jenny Offill’s Weather). Ghost Forest evokes such deep feelings in the spaces between the narration, echoing the space (and time) between her and her father and her heritage. I felt myself welling with tears at times, and others laughing, when I reached a short chapter’s end, or thinking in those spaces between paragraphs or lines. It’s a remarkably poignant novel.


Like The House on Mango Street, Fung may be partially pulling from her own history here, with a bio that reads she was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. Oftentimes I felt like I was reading a memoir, the emotions so intimate, they could only be true. But isn’t that fiction at its best? Presenting us with universal human truths, though the story may not be point for point a chronological telling of ‘How Things Happened’? It also made me want to sit with my parents and talk to them about their histories, a feeling sewn into these words and spaces by Fung as well.


“She said, Lik bat chung sam—do you know what it means? It means, what your heart wants but you cannot do. It is an uncomfortable feeling. It’s the feeling of wanting to do something and not being able to. ”

As a mother to a young daughter, the chapters from the mother and grandmother (“My Mom Says:”, “My Grandmother Says:”) made me wonder what I would impart to my daughter one day and what I might not. I thought of my mother, also an immigrant, and what she might not have disclosed to me from her youth in Panama, or even from my time as an infant. With a father in the military, often away on months-long assignments, I can remember periods of his absence, but what was it like for my mom? If the beating pulse of Ghost Forest is the grief of a father’s loss, there’s a feminist thread questioning what women inherit through the histories of their mothers.


In a similar vein, Ghost Forest also crystallized a feeling I don’t see represented that much in novels—the feeling of not wanting to be attached to a location, the “envy for people who live where they were born and raised.” Growing up in the military, I moved every one to two years, and often as an adult have a rising feeling that it’s time to move on… though now I have a husband, a kid, a house in the suburbs, and a job that would make that difficult. We moved into this house four years ago but damned if I still don’t have some boxes up in my attic office, still not unpacked. I never feel comfortable settling in completely.


“And as I got older, I kept moving and moving—from Vancouver to Providence to London to New York—because whenever I started to feel attached to a place or to people, I wanted, subconsciously, to make sure I would be the first to leave.”

 

The title comes from a painting the narrator has made while studying for a time in Hangzhou at the China Academy of Art. A visit from her father coincides with the piece being selected as part of an art show; the painting depicts the narrator riding on a bird, over a forest of white and translucent trees. The narrator is anxious about this visit with a father she doesn’t spend much time with, and his reaction to her painting reverberates through the book. Most of their relationship is fraught with what they don’t know about each other, but can that be salvaged when he becomes sick?


Fung writes with grace, melancholy, and humor. Like her narrator, Fung is also an artist, and Ghost Forest paints several portraits that resonate across experiences. The negative spaces are intentional, in order to better understand and engage. Ultimately, Ghost Forest depicts how different love can look depending on your vantage point. It’s a book that won’t leave my mind any time soon, and I look forward to Fung’s next work of art.


Ghost Forest

By Pik-Shuen Fung

272 pages. 2021.


This title will be released next week, July 13th.

Pre-order it now from our Bookshops in the US & UK.


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