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) 


  1. It sounds like a very interesting book! Thank you!

  2. I agree we often see our parents as parents and not as people with hopes, feeling and regrets. I never got the chance to ask my parents these questions, but I wish I did. I have years of blog posts. I hope one day my son will take an interest and read them and my book, so he understands what I have been through.

    1. Thank you for sharing. I hope you have a chance to engage in conversation with him so that he can ask questions when there is still time.



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