"How do you grieve, if your family doesn’t talk about feelings?" This question is the irresistible hook that pulls you into Ghost Forest, a quietly devastating debut novel about family and grief by Pik-Shuen Fung.
Full disclosure, Ghost Forest is a timely read for me, because my own father passed away earlier this year. Being a military man, he was often physically away, and when he wasn’t, we remained emotionally distant.
This book had much to teach me about processing the complex feelings around acknowledging the regret behind the failure of one of your life’s fundamental relationships, grieving for someone you didn’t really know, and loving them all the same.
Peeks through the trees
Ghost Forest is told in several short chapters, each a vignette into the narrator’s life growing up. I think the format served the narrative very well, chronicling a whole life’s experiences without getting bogged down the way it would have been if it had been told as a regular novel. As a result, each chapter is poignant, pointed, and almost reads like poetry.
One part of the book is an immigrant story. We explore the narrator’s experiences leaving Hong Kong and growing up in Canada with her mom and grandparents. The picture she paints is given more depth by wise and humorous stories of her grandparents growing up in post-war Hong Kong, as well as confessions of the sorrow and isolation her mother felt raising two young girls in Canada alone.
The other half is very much a family story. The narrator’s father stayed behind in Hong Kong, and for much of her life they would only see each other once or twice a year. It’s a very relatable narrative for those of us with OFW, military, or otherwise astronaut parents (flying here, flying there).
We watch the narrator and her father stumble through their relationship: We sympathise as she misses the mark on father’s expectations and her father misses her need to be seen, appreciated, and parented.
Ghosts passing in the night
On her father’s part, he too struggles to cross the gulf created by distance and the emotional unavailability that was characteristic of their generation. The vignettes frame the ironic quandary of working your whole life to give your children the best possible life at the expense of sacrificing your relationship with them.
We root for them to meet in the middle. We watch them try, fall short, and try again. We wish they would sit down, talk freely and honestly, and walk away as a harmonious father-daughter team and live happily ever after. But we know they are not that kind of family, and this isn’t that kind of story.
When her father passes away, we keenly feel the grief and regret of all the words left unspoken, all the extended hands untaken, all the love left unexpressed. We wish it could have gone another way.
Tending to our own
Ghost Forest is a quick but hard-hitting read. It’s a mercy the chapters are so short—the vignettes provide ample space to set the book down and ruminate on whatever feelings the book stirs up.
No matter how close we are to our families (or not!), for certain, there are wounds and unspoken rifts that need tending.
In a year where so many of us have gotten acquainted with grief, this book is an invitation to reflect on our own relationships at home, and see where we can prevent forests of ghosts taking root at home.
Reina is a professional content writer for lifestyle, health, and most things geek. When not at work, she reads everything from YA dystopia, to history books, to tarot cards. Support her lifelong love affair with words over at reinabambao.com!
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]