Title/Author: Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung
Publisher: One World
In a nutshell (Publisher):
This “powerful” (BuzzFeed) debut about love, grief, and family welcomes you into its pages and invites you to linger, staying with you long after you’ve closed its covers.
“I am madly in love with this book, a kaleidoscopic wonder.”—T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
How do you grieve, if your family doesn’t talk about feelings?
This is the question the unnamed protagonist of GhostForest considers after her father dies. One of the many Hong Kong “astronaut” fathers, he stays there to work, while the rest of the family immigrated to Canada before the 1997 Handover, when the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.
As she revisits memories of her father through the years, she struggles with unresolved questions and misunderstandings. Turning to her mother and grandmother for answers, she discovers her own life refracted brightly in theirs.
Buoyant and heartbreaking, Ghost Forest is a slim novel that envelops the reader in joy and sorrow. Fung writes with a poetic and haunting voice, layering detail and abstraction, weaving memory and oral history to paint a moving portrait of a Chinese-Canadian astronaut family.
“In the painting, I am riding a brown bird. We are soaring above tree after tree, and each one is white and translucent. I washed white watercolor on gray rice paper to create that effect. I titled the painting Ghost Forest.”
This book keeps appearing on my suggested reading. I was intrigued by its synopsis and it scored an average of 4 star rating on Goodreads. In need of a short (and good) read desperately, I decided to give it a go. Plus, I just couldn’t resist its gorgeous cover.
In Ghost Forest, we have the narrator who moved to Canada with her mother and grandmother before Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. There, they started a new life, while her ‘astronaut father’, stayed back in Hong Kong and visited them in Canada once a year. When her father was diagnosed with liver disease and fell sick, they went back and visited him in the hospital. The family reunited and revisited memories long forgotten or had never been shared.
After her father’s death, the narrator had a hard time coming to terms with herself how little she knew of her father not only because they lived far away from each other, but also because there was little or no communication at all between them, because like many Asian families, feelings were hardly expressed. When she told him “I love you” and he didn’t reciprocate, she was disappointed. He told her, “We’re Chinese. It’s not important for us to express our feelings.”
Despite all that, she loved and respected her father. But tried as she might to earn his approval, she only got criticisms, from her loud laugh, her painting, her looks, how she didn’t address him when she called, even commented about her college acceptance that none of them were from Harvard. He made her sound like a disappointment. It affected her so much that she did not look forward to calling him if there were no accomplishments to tell him. He expressed regret for having them raised in Canada that they forgot their Chinese roots and they were getting a lot of western education.
Told in form of vignettes, the narrator recounted her memories growing up in Canada without her father who only visited them once a year, interspersed with stories of her mother and grandmother which I really enjoyed reading as I got to learn about their lives under the Japanese ruling.
The grandmother talked about her days growing up having to eat only broken rice grains they got from the Japanese army which they would grind into powder and boiled in water like eating warm glue, reading books in the dark because they wouldn’t turn their lights on or there get bombed using only the lighting from a long stick of fir sap; whenever she went out she’d see corpses lying in the streets, and once she saw a man being forced to eat an entire pack of cigarettes with guns pointed at his head. I also learned the term tungyeungsik — to marry into the boy’s family while still a child so that she would grow up in their house working as a servant, and when old enough, give birth to his children.
One of the grandmother’s recollections was having to put a towel on her back because of her excessive sweating due to a surgery, made me recall a few incidents when I saw some Chinese women having a towel on their backs, maybe this was the reason? And when the mother shared her story about the apartment they lived in where there were men’s and women’s bathrooms, but there were no doors, just open cubicles, it reminded me of the open toilets in China I was told about.
“After you walked in, you didn’t know where to step because the kids pooped all over the floor, and sometimes bad men would peek inside.”
The saddest chapter for me was ‘Sleep‘. In it the narrator said what she would do if her father were alive today – that she would hug him, tell him about her husband, would read the entire book of ‘The Pocket’ by Thich Nhat Hanh to him, practice tai chi with him in the morning, take him out for dim sum and then go for a walk. Isn’t it ironic how we learn to treasure our loved ones more after their death than when they are alive?
“Unlike the painters of the royal court, who layered multiple colors and outlined the finest details, the artists who invented xieyi painting were scholar-amateurs, and they were not interested in depicting the physical likeness of things. 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. So what did they seek to capture instead? The artist’s spirit.“
Rather than using expressive and descriptive prose, the author let its simplicity do its work. (According to the author, her novel started with 15,000 words then to 45,000 words to help it sell to publishers, then back to its original 15,000 when it got sold). There were a lot of spaces and pauses between paragraphs, allowing the reader to breathe, feel and reflect and convey their own emotions into the narrative.
There was neither plot nor character development in this novel. Honestly, I wasn’t in awe while reading it. It just felt like I was reading someone’s diary filled with random entries. But it was the post-reading that affected me. I realized that even though the writing was simple, it was poignant, heartfelt and evocative. Using minimal words, the author managed to capture the complicated feelings in an Asian parent-child relationship, like how we are less expressive, how harsh criticisms meant love and how parents want to achieve their dreams through their kids (when the narrator’s mother got she and her sister to learn art because it was something she wanted to do but couldn’t when she was a child), and despite all these complications, there is strong familial love. Tough love is common in Asian families. As much as we resented it as kids, we still did as asked – to respect the elderly, to never question adults or the authorities, only speak when spoken to, which explains we find it so hard to express our feelings and thoughts because we have been taught to suppress them.
Ghost Forest also made me reflect a lot about my relationship with my parents and my late grandmother whom I regretted not spending enough time with, although we did create some great memories together, especially during my childhood days. I love her very much and miss her terribly.
This also made me question, would we do things differently should we know our death date or our loved ones? Would it change how the narrator’s father live his life and treat his family? And vice versa? Would there still be regrets? Would grief be different?
If you enjoy a story about complicated family relationships and the struggles of an astronaut family, or at least curious about it, you might want to add this to your TBR. Be prepared for a melancholic read, though.
Have you read this book? If you have, what did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!