Have you ever had feelings you don’t know where to place?
So you put them where you can, and give them their own space?
With restraint and intention, Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung says just enough to connect with the reader.
Written in a form merging prose with poetic structure, Ghost Forest is comprised of short, titled sections which mostly meditate on the narrator’s relationship with her late father. In a pensive tone, she reflects on the distance that often existed between them, herself speaking from a distance from the events. This hindsight allows her more of a bird’s eye perspective in a beautiful layering of themes, as space is a central element in this larger contemplation.
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.Ghost Forest, pages 70-71
Having grown up in Canada while her father remained in Hong Kong to work, the narrator becomes conditioned to his absence as a child. In a section entitled “Would it be so different?” the narrator reminisces on a vision she used to see at night in elementary school, in which she saw her parents dying in a hospital. “What would I do, how would I survive?” she wonders. “I reminded myself that I saw my dad only twice a year. Would it be so different?” (89). This childhood perception may have been an incidental premonition of her father’s later health problems, as he is hospitalized during her adulthood due to liver issues; though, by then, she begins to realize the significance of a father-daughter bond.
Despite the distance between them, and the unconditional (if not complicated) love she has for him, he has not always been the most supportive and loving parent. He is a father who demands respect from his children, and who requires a level of formality and autonomy from the narrator and her younger sister. As an adult, the narrator realizes that she has never said “I love you” to her parents, nor have they ever said it to her. Attempting to make up for lost time while her dad is still alive, she extends this verbal offering, hoping for it to be reciprocated. “You’re getting a lot of western education, my dad said. We’re Chinese. It’s not important for us to express our feelings. Underneath this sky, all parents love their children” (91). Still, though, she craves to hear it.
Throughout these vignettes, the narrator also includes passages from her mother and grandmother’s voices recounting their experiences. As her grandmother shares her story of struggle as a young woman, she mentions, “None of my children know these things. I’ve never told them, and they’ve never asked me” (30). These women, hardworking though they are, seemingly exist in their own space, until the narrator draws them nearer.
Less of a linear and detailed story, this novel is a collection of musings and memories. It seeks not to fully encapsulate each moment in crystalline description, but more to capture the essence of these experiences, proffering to the reader only what is necessary and meaningful to the narrator. The form begins to unravel near the end, which coincides with her father’s deteriorating health, using space to portray the eternity of his final moments alive, to which the narrator and her loved ones desperately cling. At the novel’s end, though the prose may not be overly wrought with emotion, I was left weeping all the same, having felt its tender impact.
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