Real life has no table of contents

I saw Ghost Forest, by Pik-Shuen Fung, on the Staff Recommended shelf at the library. The title caught my attention and leafing through, I knew this would be a stimulating read. What convinced me, at first, is the structure. The novel consists of brief stand-alone chapters, or vignettes, chronicling the narrator's upbringing in Vancouver as a child of immigrant parents from Hong Kong in the nineties. Her father remained in China, where his financial prospects looked best, while the narrator is raised under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother in Canada. She visits her father during the summers with her mother, and sometimes he flies out to stay with them and looks disapprovingly at their Westernized customs. The story is interweaving with her mother and grandmother recounting their lives, the family growing closer and coming to terms with the father's terminal illness and ultimate death.

I loved the subtle and often funny descriptions of how the family adapts to new traditions, mixing two worlds. The narrator has a close friendship with her grandmother, who shows her love through cooking. The narrator's favorite snack is her grandmother's sticky rice roll, where Lay's potato chips were added for extra crunchiness. In a section titled "Hair Ceremony," she watches a restored video tape of her mother's pre-wedding ceremony where someone places red candlesticks inside Coca-Cola cans and the narrator follows in her mother's footsteps placing her own candles in empty jam jars. 

The writing is sparse, but every sentence carries weight. One of my favorite vignettes is "The Artist's Spirit," where the narrator described studying Chinese ink painting in college. She is introduced to a freehand style of painting called xieyi, which means "to write meaning." 

Xieyi artists "left large areas of the paper blank because they felt empty space was as important as form, that absence was as important as presence." (p. 70)

This concept mirrors the structure of the book and the underlying struggle to experience a shared love and grief in a family that doesn't speak openly about either. There are several vignettes where the narrator struggles to tell her father that she loves him, and then struggles to accept his inability to say it in return. While her family has difficulty saying the word, they show it instead. Her mother gives her father three-hour long foot massages when he is at the hospital, and the narrator reads aloud to him and holds his hand. 

There were many interesting Cantonese sayings in the story that I stopped to jot down, and it was eye opening and refreshing to read a different perspective on death and mourning, and moreover what it means to be truly alive. This is the author's first novel, but I couldn't help but wonder if it is as much of a novel as Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is more of a memoir. A novel that is, with a few ironed out memories, is based on truth. 

There was a section towards the end where Pik-Shuen Fung lists the questions she wished she had asked her father. When I sat down to write this, I couldn't find the passage and kept turning the pages over and over. Frustrated, I said aloud, "I wish this book had a table of contents!" and my husband walked behind me, laid his chin on my shoulder, "Life doesn't come with a table of contents."

These are the questions the narrator would have asked her father, and these are the questions I encourage you to ask yourself and those you care about.

"What were you like when you were a kid?

What are the things you wish you'd known?

What makes you sad?

What makes you happy?" (p. 231) 

"Home is a route anchored in memory"

I repotted the violet orchid in my office. It has a single drooping node, weighed down with five vibrant flowers on its tip. The flowers are opened like the exuberant skirts of can-can dancers tucked in behind one another, three on one side and two on the opposite. There are four new buds waiting to join the line, each slightly larger than the proceeding one. The long rubbery green leaves are draped over the plastic gray pot. The plant had outgrown the pot for quite a while, stringy roots protruding out of the soil. I titled the pot to the side and pulled out the smaller plastic container nestled inside. Within lies a web of roots twisted and covered with a soft white coating the texture of styrofoam.

The roots were contorted to fit the mold of the container. Several passed through the small drainage holes at the bottom. One determined root even cracked the wall. I had to cut the side of the plastic to carefully pry them apart, like intertwined fingers clasped together, clinging to the soil. The extraction complete, I held the plant in my hands and it felt like something sacred from the sea. I poured fresh soil in the new clay pot and placed it inside, spreading more soil and patting it, making sure the roots have ample room beneath. I sprinkled a tiny spoonful of special orchid powder on top and watered it. I placed the orchid, in its new home, on the windowsill in the sunlight to watch over me as I cleaned up in the aftermath of the operation.

I washed the bits of black soil from underneath my fingernails under the warm tap and kept thinking about those complicated roots. In the mirror, a memory flickered in front of my eyes. Looking at my unmasked face, I remembered staring into the same eyes in a sleepless daze in another lifetime. I would stare into black pupils like ink drops spreading on a sheet of paper, a being outside of myself peering into the most private realm. It was a startling realization making the fuzz on my arms stand, like when I was a child and my mom would capture me in the hallway and convince me she is not my mom but a witch who morphed into an identical body. She would hug me and I'd wriggle away, asking for proof she was only teasing. I was slow to understand jokes, even now, my laugh is a few seconds too many delayed.

One of the defining characteristics of a home is the ability to hold. The physical home holds essential and sentimental material possessions. It is a place that cradles, no matter how small or cramped, like the walls of a glass vase a cat willingly squeezes into for the feeling of being held. The inner-workings of the orchid reminded me of resilience, how living things can thrive despite limitations, sometimes in spite of them, like dandelions reaching for the sun through the uninhabitable cracks in a pavement.

Home is a fluid place inside ourselves. In The House, a stop-motion animation film we watched at the beginning of the year, the last segment stars an anthropomorphic cat who converts her childhood home into an apartment building. Her house appears to be the last one standing above water in a flooded world, its tenants slacking on rent, repurposing floor boards from the vacant top floor to build boats and sail into the mist, one by one they leave. She tries to nail the boards back on the floor and wallpapers over the decaying walls, but it doesn't stick. We are resilient and we are stubborn. 

I found a photograph of me, age thirteen, that I keep tucked behind the last page in my journal. I am leaning on a shiny blue railing onboard a sightseeing ship, landscape view cropped from the waist up. My body is turned to the side, glancing back at the camera. My right elbow is propped on the railing, my hand covering the left side of my chin and cheek, a gesture suggesting I wanted to hide my face or was on my way to tuck the strands of hair behind my ear. My hair is strawberry blonde in the sun, in a loose braid flowing behind my shoulder blade. My face is overexposed in the light, my eyebrows almost non-existent. My eyes are squinting and looking at the camera, my lips curved up in a slight smile. I'm wearing a thin teal knitted cardigan, the white skin on my arm visible through the translucent fabric. The background is denim blue water, rippling in the wind, and above it, a symmetrical line of puffy green trees drawing long black shadows on the path. I look mischievous and pleased with myself. 

I am eternally youthful in the photograph. I do not yet know what comes next, nor do I fully comprehend what came before. I haven't yet removed the Beethoven pictures decorating the cover of my school three-ring binder, haven't yet found out what isn't cool, or cut my hair. It was the brief moment of my childhood when growing up didn't equate with finding yourself or becoming somebody, because I felt I was already whole. My roots were beginning to climb out of my container, but you couldn't tell looking at me. I feel closer to that thirteen-year-old me now, in spirit if not in body.

When I held the unearthed orchid in the palms of my hands, I wanted to write about reinventing home. I pictured the walls of a room, the dust on a windowsill, the scuffs and indentations rearranged furniture leaves behind on the floors, the way the feng shui of a space remains intact no matter what changes. The sunlight continues to pour in on the south-facing side, bleaching the curtains, the faded red brick. The wear and tear of life doesn't pull us further away from ourselves, we do that on our own. Perhaps growing older is less about finding yourself and more about rediscovering who you were before you felt the pressure to break free.


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Holding on to those fleeting moments that matter most.


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