“Ghost Forest”: Absence Is as Important as Presence

On July 1, 1997, the United Kingdom ceded control of Hong Kong to the Chinese government, formally ending 156 years of British rule. This change must have been unsettling for Hong Kongers whose families had lived on the island for generations, who were rooted to its soil, and had never known another government. Imagine how a Virginian might feel if dominion over the commonwealth were suddenly returned to the Queen of England. Even hardcore anglophiles would meet this change with distrust and apprehension, I’d wager.

The Handover (or The Return, as it’s called in mainland China) is not the focus of artist and writer Pik-Shuen Fung’s debut novel, Ghost Forest. But nearly everything that happens in this spare and heartbreaking work is, arguably, a consequence of this historic event. When the novel’s unnamed narrator is still a small girl, her family leaves humid Hong Kong for the cool air of British Columbia, fleeing the unnerving (because it’s unpredictable) prospect of Chinese rule. Her father, unwilling to give up his manufacturing job, stays behind in Hong Kong, but visits his wife and children in Vancouver as often as possible — which isn’t all that often. The narrator thus becomes part of an “astronaut family, [a term] invented by the Hong Kong media … with an astronaut father — flying here, flying there.”

She’s not alone. Many Hong Kong expats live in Vancouver in the late nineties, but most of them go back when their worst fears about Chinese rule do not come to pass (Wui Lau, this homecoming was termed: “the tide returns”). The narrator’s family decides to stay, though, and for the rest of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, she sees her father in person only occasionally. These infrequent reunions are often less than joyous occasions: He can be sharply critical, even downright mean. His daughter’s an artist, but he doesn’t much like her work, and he’s not afraid to tell her so (“I think there is something wrong with you that you’re making art like this,” he says, examining the titular painting). On a trip to the beach, he announces, apropos of nothing, that she’d look better if her face were thinner, and if she were two inches taller. The narrator, raised in the West, craves a kind of affection from her father that he, an Eastern man to his core, is not equipped to give. They may share their DNA, but the gulf of their estrangement is deep and possibly unbridgeable.

When her father falls ill with a bad liver — not from drinking but because, according to her mother, the liver repairs itself between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., hours when her father doesn’t sleep well — the narrator, now a young adult living in London, flies home to be with him as his health slowly deteriorates. Watching her father slip away is a jarring experience, as it would be for anyone, but the character of her grieving is especially complex. She remembers wondering, as a child, how much her life would really change if her father died, given his physical distance. Now that he’s actually leaving, though, it’s clear she’ll feel his absence more keenly than she anticipated, and she mourns not only his impending death, but the many years they lost living on opposite shores of the Pacific.

In recent years, a certain style of literary fiction has risen in prominence, and has, unsurprisingly, attracted both admiration and opprobrium. The style I’m referring to is generally characterized by short and fragmented passages, restrained prose, and an autofictional bent. As far as I’m aware, the style hasn’t been given a specific nickname, but its most well-known and artistically successful practitioners include Jenny Offill and Olivia Laing, while its most visible critic is probably Lauren Oyler, whose own debut novel, Fake Accounts, includes an extended segment intended as a parody (and, perhaps, as a shot across the bow). Ghost Forest falls pretty squarely into this category; its first half is, if anything, even more fragmented than recent novels by Offill and Laing (although it’s perhaps less fragmented than Patricia Lockwood’s frantic No One is Talking About This). Fung’s prose is hypnotic, restrained to the brink of nonexistence. The narration jumps back and forth across decades and continents, and suddenly inhabits the narrator’s mother’s or grandmother’s perspective as they share forgotten anecdotes from the narrator’s childhood and recount familial legends. But this all happens very softly, with gentle, laconic language, as in the novel’s opening passage, which is only slightly more terse than the rest of the manuscript:

Twenty-one days after my dad died, a bird perched on the railing of my balcony. It was brown. It stayed there for a long time.

Hi Dad, I said. Thanks for checking up on me.

I lay down on the couch and read some emails on my phone. When I looked up again, the bird was gone.

Fung’s choice to craft the novel in this way seems to have been a conscious one. Speaking about xieyi, a freehand style of painting she studied in college, the narrator says, “They [the 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.” Ghost Forest is an incarnation of this aesthetic stance (which is also, perhaps, a comment on the narrator’s relationship with her father), and the novel is successful in large part because Fung is so discerning, and knows how to use the blank page to create atmosphere and command our attention even within such quietude.

Some people, like Oyler, don’t like this kind of writing. Her objections make sense to me (and I happen to love her own novel), but ultimately I don’t agree with her position. Weather and Crudo and No One are some of the more startling, memorable, and affecting — and therefore worthy — literary works of recent years. Ghost Forest is, in my view, another example of why this style of writing is valuable. I suspect it’s not as easy as it looks to build a novel like this one, and there is no doubt it succeeds on its own terms. So readers who don’t bristle at fragmentation would do well to spend a few hours with this novel. Maybe even read it twice. You’ll remember it later, I suspect, much like I did: as a slim but compelling meditation on history, absence, and regret.

Ghost Forest
By Pik-Shuen Fung
One World
Published July 13, 2021