“Ghost Forest” is a kaleidoscopic debut from Chinese Canadian writer Pik-Shuen Fung. Though the book is a novel, it often reads like a memoir in its realism, and sometimes like poetry in its rhythm. Mixing straightforward prose with experimentation of form, the story’s power sneaks up on you, wrapping you in its lines with a grip that is both gentle and irresistible.
The unnamed narrator is an artist who learns a painting style called xieyi. “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.”
The first thing you’ll notice when opening “Ghost Forest” is how much space inhabits the pages. Its brevity is inviting, its pacing as quick as a viewer’s gaze alighting on one piece of scenery and then the next.
Through tiny, brightly rendered scenes, we get to know a daughter who is longing for connection with her father, even before she loses him to illness and death. We become part of a family who yearns to ask each other questions to bridge distances before it’s too late. “A family with an astronaut father — flying here, flying there,” the narrator says of her father’s work-life in Hong Kong while she grew up in Vancouver.
Some describe this novel as fragmented, but as when viewing discrete sections of a large tapestry, you can sense how each thread is tightly woven to create a whole picture. Sometimes the threads connect between images in adjacent chapters. Other times the flow comes from titles and first sentences: a chapter called “My Grandma Says” is followed by the chapter “Family Prayer,” whose first line begins, “My grandma said…”
Chapters in both the grandmother’s voice and mother’s voice pepper the narrator’s perspective. Cantonese sayings, usually from the narrator’s mother, serve as a key for overarching themes. “She said, Lik bat chung sam — do you know what it means? It means, what your heart wants but you cannot do.” This feeling is one that emanates grief. When we lose a loved one, we want to tell them things, ask them questions, give and receive forgiveness, or just spend an afternoon with them. It’s also a feeling that characterizes the central father-daughter relationship. The two struggle to say, “I love you”, to accept each other, to get to know each other, but that heart desire keeps pushing them to reach toward each other — during life and after.
In the gaps Fung leaves, there is room for the reader to inhabit the story; to sit with our own grief if we’ve lost loved ones, to realize what we want to say to those who are still here. In these pages, readers can find healing and growth. After the last sentence, you’ll want to start again from the beginning, turning the kaleidoscope to see new patterns made from the spaces between multicolored details.
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
Photo credit: Tria Wen